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How to Perform Risk by Saying Words

How to Perform Risk by Saying Words

The Dramatic Fulcrum of the Action

Risk is inherently dramatic. This can be demonstrated through a familiar example. If you drive through town at thirty miles an hour, following the rules of the road, little drama results. If, however, you drive through town at a hundred miles an hour, drama lies in wait around every corner. You will, with Shakespeare’s Brutus, say: “Fates, we will know your pleasures” (Julius Caesar 3.1.98). The reason is that, by weaving through traffic at inordinate speeds, you are taking maximum risk. Around every hairpin turn, you dance on the edge. An unexpected pothole or a blowout at thirty miles an hour is manageable. At a hundred miles an hour, a deer leaping out of the woods is less manageable. Risk is inherently dramatic because it exposes you to unexpected, low-probability, high-consequence events. The more risk you take, the more you expose yourself to loose gravel, fresh tarmac, drivers around you deviating from the line. At high enough speeds, the hand of God could strike from any direction.

Because risk is inherently dramatic, playwrights have made, in many tragedies, risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action. In Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Oedipus is going too fast trying to solve the riddle of the regicide. By taking on inordinate risk, Oedipus triggers the unexpected, low-probability, high-consequence event: he finds out that he himself is the regicide he seeks. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Romeo and Juliet are going one hundred miles an hour too fast. As a result, they die when the post is delayed: when risk is elevated, one letter can make the difference between life and death. In Emily McClain’s Children of Combs and Watch Chains, husband and wife Jim and Della Young find out that the more risk they take to become parents, the more reality twists and forks in unexpected paths.

Action is what triggers the risk events that audiences look forward to with anticipation and apprehension. Drama, from the Greek drān is “to do” or “to act” (LSJ s.v. dráō). By killing Duncan, for example, Macbeth triggers unexpected, low-probability, high-consequence events: Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill. In other words, it is by the act of casting the die that the die is cast. In this essay, however, I want to look at the verbal components of risk. The first verbal component of risk is the use of words and speech to highlight, accentuate, and draw attention to impending risk events. The second verbal component of risk involves using dialogue to draw taut the string of suspense. Finally, the third verbal component is where words themselves perform actions. Let us explore the ways of performing risk by saying words.

The Very Firstlings of My Heart

One way to signal to the audience that events of great daring are forthcoming is to tell them. Macbeth, for example, announces his intentions before storming Macduff’s castle:

MACBETH. Time, thou anticipat’st my dread exploits.
The flighty purpose never is o’ertook
Unless the deed go with it. From this moment
The very firstlings of my heart shall be
The firstlings of my hand. And even now,
To crown my thoughts with acts, be it thought and done. (4.1.143–48)

Antonio in Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi also tells the audience to watch out for dramatic fireworks. Before risking all on a doubtful reconciliation with the Cardinal, who has murdered his wife and children, he announces the enormity of his task:

DELIO. What course do you mean to take, Antonio?
ANTONIO. This night I mean to venture all my fortune—
Which is no more than a poor, ling’ring life—
To the cardinal’s worst of malice. (5.1.60–63)
In the event that the audience missed Antonio’s first declaration, Webster has Antonio repeat himself a few moments later. He is definitely throwing caution to the winds:
ANTONIO. Come, I’ll out of the ague;
For to live thus is not indeed to live.
It is a mockery, and abuse of life.
I will not henceforth save myself by halves;
Lose all, or nothing. (5.4.45–49)

By daring to “venture all my fortune” and wagering to “lose all, or nothing,” Antonio signals that he is on the verge. Because he has taken on inordinate risks, he can no longer cover his position, leaving himself exposed. The scene, therefore, is set for the low-probability, high-consequence event to surprise the audience. The audience will not be disappointed: as Antonio sneaks into the Cardinal’s chamber, he will be struck down by the very friend who has come to save him.

Because audiences are unaware when the risk event takes place, playwrights give audiences a heads up that the dramatic fulcrum approaches: anticipated moments are memorable moments. In the past, the cue took the form of highly artificial forms of speech. Though Macbeth is ostensibly talking to Lennox when he says: “The very firstlings of my heart shall be / The firstlings of my hand,” his words really are thoughts spoken out loud for the benefit of the audience. The same is true when Antonio tells Delio “This night I mean to venture all my fortune.” It is spoken as a sort of soliloquy. Certainly, when Hamlet says to himself: “O, from this time forth / My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth,” it is part of a soliloquy proper (4.4.64–65). In an age, however, where more naturalistic patterns of speech are preferred, the playwright can embed the announcement in dialogue. McClain adopts this technique in Children of Combs and Watch Chains. Della, rejected at the adoption agency, lights the dramatic wick when her nurse, Esther, tells her of a promising but unlicensed fertility clinic:

ESTHER. I can give you his contact information. But you have to promise me that you won’t mention my name or how you found out about him to anyone. Not your husband, not anyone! I could lose my nursing license!
DELLA. Esther, of course not. I won’t say anything. I just—I’m ready to try something different. My current treatment isn’t working and I—I can’t look back on this as another opportunity I screwed up by being overly cautious. (155)

Ostensibly, Esther shares with Della her contact at the unlicensed fertility clinic. The audience, however, hears a dramatic subtext in their conversation, hears Della throwing caution to the winds. When the audience hears her go risk on, they sit on the edge of their seats, expecting the unexpected, low-probability, high-consequence event to happen at any moment.
Because risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action, playwrights have at their disposal various ways of drawing attention to the impending risk event. A direct method involves having characters say that they are going all-in by speaking their thoughts out loud in a soliloquy or an aside. Alternatively, the declaration of risk could take place indirectly in the dialogue between characters. Either way, through speech and voice, the audience is primed for what is to come.

The Dialogue of Rising Risk: Stichomythia

Not only can words signal risk, words can also themselves set off risk. A common example of how speech elevates risk is stichomythia, from the Greek stíchos “line of verse” (LSJ s.v. stíchos) and mūthos “speech” or “talk” (LSJ s.v. mūthos). In stichomythic speech, two characters exchange rapidly alternating lines while voicing antithetical positions. In Sophocles’ play Antigone, after Creon sentences Antigone to death, Haemon (Creon’s son and Antigone’s fiancé) attempts to persuade Creon to change his mind. Stichomythia begins as Haemon’s attempt breaks down:

CREON. Why, you degenerate—bandying accusations,
threatening me with justice, your own father!
HAEMON. I see my father offending justice—wrong.
CREON. Wrong?
To protect my royal rights?
HAEMON. Protect your rights?
When you trample down the honors of the gods?
CREON. You, you soul of corruption, rotten through—
woman’s accomplice!
HAEMON. That may be,
but you will never find me accomplice to a criminal.
CREON. That’s what she is,
and every word you say is a blatant appeal for her—
HAEMON. And you, and me, and the gods beneath the earth.
CREON. You will never marry her, not while she’s alive.
HAEMON. Then she will die…but her death will kill another. (831–43)

In alternating lines, the characters lay down antithetical standpoints. While Creon emphasizes his position of authority as king and father (“your own father,” “my royal rights,” “You will never…”), Haemon points out that Creon, by sentencing Antigone to death for burying her brother, is going against what the gods want, which is for the dead to be buried. By rapidly alternating the dialogue between antithetical positions, stichomythia raises, through words and speech, tension to the point of breaking.

Though an artificial device to raise the tension, stichomythia, by closely approximating patterns of speech in everyday life, is a versatile device. Consider, for example, how easily it makes the transition from ancient to modern drama. Here is an example from Gabriel Jason Dean’s play In Bloom. Dean’s play examines power, imperialism, and privilege. In this scene, British-Indian professor Kashi Jones awards American writer Aaron Freeman the prestigious Sommerville Prize, but not before asking the hard questions before a packed Cambridge auditorium. As she presses and Aaron resists, the dialogue goes stichomythic:

AARON. Doctor Jones, I gotta be honest, I’m feeling a bit sabotaged up here.
KASHI. I’m sorry, but I hope you’ll understand. I can’t let your achievements or your confessional book get in the way of asking important questions.
AARON. Are you Hindi?
KASHI. I suppose you mean Hindu.
AARON. OK. Yes, I beg your pardon. Hindu. Are you?
KASHI. I don’t see how this is relevant.
AARON. Come on. You read my book. You know everything about me. Are you Hindu?
KASHI. Culturally yes. Spiritually no.
AARON. Are you Muslim?
KASHI. No.
AARON. You’re an Indian woman, living and working in Britain, judging by your last name, Doctor Jones, you’re probably married to a Brit, which I think means you know a thing or two about imperialism—
KASHI. Mr. Freeman!
AARON. And your work is about women in Afghanistan. What qualifies you to tell their stories? You’re not Afghan.
KASHI. I’m not a storyteller. I’m a scholar.
AARON. So academics get a pass?
KASHI. No, that’s not what I’m saying—
AARON. Is my perspective on this irrelevant becasue I’m not brown…enough? (48)

As Kashi and Aaron spar over right, privilege, social justice, identity politics, and cultural appropriation, the risk of their debate exploding increases. Stichomythia, by allowing two antagonists to concentrate their positions in the alternating lines, takes them towards a point of no return. With each line, they dig in, raising the stakes. The rising pitch is unsustainable: something will give, and, when it does, the repercussions will be consequential.

How to Make Risk with Words

Risk is associated with physical actions. In Pierre Corneille’s The Cid, for example, the Count makes risk by performing the physical act of a slap. Don Diego, who has received a promotion, meets the Count, who feels the promotion was his. They argue:

THE COUNT. The honour then was due to me alone.
DON DIEGO. Who was not given it deserves it not.
THE COUNT. Deserves it not! I?
DON DIEGO. You.
THE COUNT. Your impudence,
Reckless old man, will have its due reward.
[He gives him a slap.]
DON DIEGO [drawing his sword]. Go on and take my life after this slight—
The first at which my line has bowed in shame.
THE COUNT. And what, old weakling, could you hope to do?
DON DIEGO. O God! my failing strength abandons me! (222–30)

The physical act of the slap marks the moment the die is cast. A chain reaction of events ensues: Don Diego’s son, bound to defend his father’s honour, will to duel the Count to the death. Unfortunately, Don Diego’s son is also betrothed to the Count’s daughter. The physical act of the slap is the trigger of unexpected low-probability, high-consequence events.
Although risk is associated with action—a slap, casting the die, crossing the Rubicon, dropping the gloves—in his 1962 book How to Do Things with Words, philosopher J. L. Austin defined and explored a class of words which are performative in nature. Utterances such as “I do” (during a marriage ceremony), “I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth” (while dedicating a vessel), “I give and bequeath my watch to my brother,” (in a will), or “I bet you sixpence,” argued Austin (1968, 5), are activities that are done with words. Because these utterances constitute actions, he called them “speech acts” (Austin 168, 40). As risk is associated with action, speech acts make it possible to make risk with words.
Nicholas Dunn, in his play The Value, makes risk with words. Nickel-and-dime criminals Ian and Zoey discover that the painting they stole is a modern masterpiece worth much more than tens of thousands they were hoping for. They have a buyer that can give them, right here and right now, tens of thousands. Zoey wants to take the buyer’s certain offer. Ian wants to hold out for more, but could wind up with nothing. Zoey, preferring the bird in hand and tired of Ian’s “woulda,” “coulda,” and “shouldas,” issue him an ultimatum:

ZOEY. No! Ian, no one understands when you talk like that! If you’re after more money just fucking say it!
IAN. I’m not talking about money! You guys think money is the end of all this, but it’s not. It never is! I been hustlin’ my whole life and it just bets me to the next one and the next one. This is about means. This is about access. About power. About the ability to go up. Beat. ZOEY looks at VICTOR, who remains shrunken against the wall.
ZOEY. Did that make any sense to you?
VICTOR doesn’t reply. She turns back to IAN.
ZOEY. My turn. And listen how easy this is, to communicate, when the concept is plain and simple. This is about need. The three of us need money. And the three of us need each other. Those are the things we need to survive. You know that, don’t you? That we need each other? I thought you did know that—finally—but maybe you forgot again when McEvoy told you what we had. But the painting is nothing. It’s fucking splotches of color on cloth. Soon, one way or another, it’ll be gone. And when it disappears it makes no difference. But I’m here. You’re here. And that does make a difference. It doesn’t have to disappear. It can stay. This is an opportunity. To fix things. To survive together. To maybe get to a place where having something is just as good, just as fulfilling as wanting it. I came here for you. I did this for you. I risked everything for you. Because we are kin. Now we can sell this useless thing to McEvoy, make his fucking life complete, and walk away with enough money to go somewhere, somewhere different, and start over. I need that. You need that. [Pause]
IAN. Zoey…
ZOEY. You need me. The question is, do you know it. Do you finally know it? If you do, you’ll sell the painting and we’ll be unstuck. If you don’t this is it. This is the last time we see each other. This isn’t a hustle, it’s the goddamn truth. So make this right. There. See how straightforward that is?
There’s a soft know on the door. Beat.
ZOEY. Well? What will you do?
Pause. Another knock.
ZOEY. Ian? [Beat]
IAN. I. Can’t. Settle. (128–29)

Ian’s “I. Can’t. Settle” is a performative utterance. It commits him to a course of action. It is the exact opposite of saying “I do” in a marriage ceremony. By saying it, he irrevocably rejects Zoey. By a toss of words, the die is cast; there is no return. It is like a slap. By performing risk with words, Ian triggers unexpected low-probability, high-consequence events: Zoey, speechless, exits and goes deep into the underworld to find another buyer for the painting, one who will leave Ian with nothing. In the speech act, the word is equivalent to the physical act. With speech acts, one makes risk by saying words.

Why Risk?

In drama, the relationship between words and risk is threefold. First, words may be used to announce that the risk event is imminent. When Hamlet says: “O, from this time forth / My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth,” he is telling the audience that he is ready to take on danger, and the unexpected events that come with danger. Second, words may be used to set off the risk event. Stichomythia, by rapidly alternating between antithetical positions, is a verbal device that quickly escalates tension. Third, words may be used in lieu of actions to perform risk. A class of performative utterances—“I dismiss,” “I convict,” or “I bet” (Austin 1968, 152–57)—are able to engender risk the same way as physical acts. Speech acts are spoken with power.

Today is a fascinating time to explore risk because risk is the basis of my new theory of tragedy. I introduced my theory in a 2019 book called The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. In this book, I likened the thrill and rising action of theatre to the delirious wagers gamblers place at the no-limit tables. The book then became the centrepiece of an international playwriting competition inviting playwrights to make risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action (risktheatre.com). The response was overwhelming: playwrights from seventeen countries have participated. Then, in early 2022, the second risk theatre book came out: When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theatre: Three Tragedies and Six Essays. The second book is an anthology. It brings together a sampling of plays from the competition: Gabriel Jason Dean’s In Bloom, Nicholas Dunn’s The Value, and Emily McClain’s Children of Combs and Watch Chains. Along with the plays are six new essays on the intersection between theatre, probability theory, chance, and risk. These essays respond to the criticisms of the first book—that it had too little engaged with existing theories of drama—and lay out a new path forwards for writers, students, and teachers to engage with risk. By bringing together risk theatre plays and risk theatre essays, the goal of the book is to bring together the practice and theory of drama in a new unity.

The first four years of the competition have brought about two milestones: playwrights discovered they love working with risk and audiences discovered interpretations based on risk unlock drama. These are still the early days of exploring how risk functions as the dramatic fulcrum of the action. Much of the grunt work is still to follow. This essay on how voice and speech on stage anticipates and triggers risk events represents a start, the next leg of the journey into researching risk on stage. Many pathways, and unexpected, are opening up. Let us see where they lead.

References

Austin, J. L. 1962. How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Oxford.

Corneille, Pierre. 1975. The Cid. In The Cid, Cinna, The Theatrical Illusion, translated by John Cairncross, 23–109. London: Penguin.

Dean, Gabriel Jason. 2022. In Bloom. In When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theater: Three Tragedies and Six Essays, edited by Edwin Wong, 5–80. Victoria: Friesen.

Dunn, Nicholas. 2022. The Value. In When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theater: Three Tragedies and Six Essays, edited by Edwin Wong, 77–146. Victoria: Friesen.

McClain, Emily. 2022. Children of Combs and Watch Chains. In When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theater: Three Tragedies and Six Essays, edited by Edwin Wong, 143–97. Victoria: Friesen.

Shakespeare, William. 1984. Julius Caesar. Edited by Arthur Humphreys. Oxford: Oxford.

– – -. 2016. Hamlet. Edited by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor. London: Arden Shakespeare.

– – -. 2015. Macbeth. Edited by Sandra Clark and Pamela Mason. London: Arden Shakespeare.

Sophocles. 1984. Antigone. In The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, translated by Robert Fagles, 33–128. New York: Penguin.

– – -. 1984. Oedipus the King. In The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, translated by Robert Fagles, 129–251. New York: Penguin.

Webster, John. 1997. The Duchess of Malfi. In Six Renaissance Tragedies, edited by Colin Gibson, 243–347. Houndmills: Palgrave.

Wong, Edwin. 2019. The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. Victoria: Friesen.

Wong, Edwin, Gabriel Jason Dean, Nicholas Dunn, and Emily McClain. 2022. When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theater: Three Tragedies and Six Essays. Victoria: Friesen.

Edwin Wong is a classicist and theatre researcher specializing in the impact of the highly improbable. In 2019, he launched the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition (risktheatre.com). The competition invites playwrights around the world to explore risk. He is also the author and coauthor of two books examining the intersection between theatre, chance, and probability theory: The Risk Theory Model of Tragedy (2019) and When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theatre (2022). He was educated at Brown University and lives in Victoria, Canada. Follow him Twitter @TheoryOfTragedy.

– – –

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Is Eteocles in Aeschylus’s SEVEN AGAINST THEBES a Capable Leader?–The Siege with a Single Casualty

Classical Association of the Middle West and South (CAMWS)
118th Annual Meeting in Winston-Salem, NC
Wake Forest University
March 23-26, 2022
Edwin Wong

Hello everyone, thanks for coming. I’m Edwin Wong, a theatre researcher from Canada. I specialize in the theory of tragedy and I’ve created one called “risk theatre” that makes risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action. It’s launched an international playwriting competition, now in its fourth year, check it out at risktheatre.com.

Today, I’m here to rehabilitate Aeschylus’s Seven against Thebes. This is the play that drew me into the classics decades ago. I found it quite by chance and though it was the best ever. I finally cracked why it’s so fantastic, and I’m here today to share my vision with you. By the way, Theater in Greece and Rome (TIGR) is performing a staged reading of Seven Thursday night. Check it out.

You know, Aeschylus was a soldier who distinguished himself in the four major engagements of the Persian Wars, from Marthon to Artemisium, Salamis, and Plataea. On his epitaph, he doesn’t even mention anything about playwriting: it only records his valour in the grove of Marathon. A type of person such as this, I would expect, when writing a martial play, would create a portrait of an effective and patriotic leader.

Not only that, Aristophanes remembers in Frogs that Seven inspired audiences “hot to be warlike.” Now, if Eteocles was perceived to be a bumbling idiot, it would be hard to see how it would have inspired audiences “hot to be warlike.”

Let’s take a look at how Eteocles lays down his masterclass in patriotism. In his opening words, he says:

For if we win success, the God is the cause
but if—may it not chance so—there is disaster,
throughout the town, voiced by its citizens,
a multitudinous swelling prelude
cries on one name “Eteocles” with groans.

His asymmetric “heads the god wins; tails Eteocles loses” heuristic seems confused. Shouldn’t it follow that, if the gods take credit, the gods also take blame? This happens in other cultures. In The Golden Bough, James George Frazer records how, when there was a disastrous six-month draught, the Sicilians abused the statue of Saint Angelo, their patron rainmaker, stripping him, reviling him, putting him in irons, and drowning and hanging him. In another example, he records how praise and blame is symmetric in the Far East where the Chinese would, by imperial decree, elevate compliant gods to higher levels of godhead and strip recalcitrant gods of their divinity.

I think that what Eteocles realizes is that an effective leader cannot transfer the risk of failure to others. Risk must be asymmetric. Take a look at what happens in the Iliad where Agamemnon, while apologizing to Achilles for inciting their ruinous quarrel, transfers the blame to Zeus, Fate, and the Erinys. “They made me do it,” he says. It is a daft apology; Achilles spits it out. So too, when, facing mounting losses, Agamemnon points his finger at Zeus. Now it may be true that it happens by the will of Zeus, but, you can’t say that.

So, Eteocles—unlike Agamemnon—by holding himself responsible, aligns himself with his constituents’ interests. In other words, he has skin in the game. The principle of skin in the game find is that, to succeed, one must be invested in the successful outcome. Skin in the game is a concept from the business world, where it was observed that startups where the founders invested their own seed money were more likely to succeed. For example: want to create the world’s most successful theatre company?—well, make Shakespeare and Richard Burbage your shareholders. The skin in the game idea caught my attention when mathematician, philosopher, and trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb elevated the idea into a way of life in his 2018 New York Times bestselling book Skin in the Game. When I read it, it occurred to me that this is the policy Eteocles is pursuing.

To see how skin in the game works, look at the chorus. They’re in a panic. They come to the acropolis to prostrate themselves on the gods’ altars. “Zeus, Father Omnipotent! all fulfilling!” says the chorus, “Let us not fall into the hands of the foeman!” “Do not betray this city,” says the chorus. As the chorus prays, Eteocles rebukes them, calling them “insupportable creatures” and “an object of hatred.” Why the harsh words? The chorus protests. They have done nothing wrong. They were afraid. They ran to the altars. Their actions fall in line with custom.

Skin in the game can explain Eteocles’s exasperation. Take a look at another prayer—from Marlowe’s play—when the great magician Faustus, having achieved world dominion, at perhaps too high a price, looks for another way. He calls on God. “I do repent,” he says, “and yet I do despair.” Like the chorus’s prayers saying “Grant me not be a slave” and “do not betray the city,” these are negative prayers lacking skin in the game. They are the prayers, like Faustus’ of someone who is already defeated.

Eteocles gives them a better prayer, one that motivates people and gods by promising them a share of the victory. The new prayer invokes the gods as the city’s allies, a joyous paean of thanksgiving promising them hearths abounding with sacrificial animals and altars adorned with spoils. The chorus get it: from singing the fall of Thebes at the beginning, by the time the action moves to the sixth gate, they are calling on Zeus to “strike down and slay the foe.”

It shouldn’t really make a difference whether you have skin. When Agamemnon says it was Zeus, you know, he was correct. And if you’re a playwright, it shouldn’t really matter if you’re a shareholder: you try your best to do your job, right? Well, wrong. It’s not logic that counts because we’re not machines. We’re humans and we’re wired a certain way that having skin in the game works. What Seven suggests is that patriotism is a behaviour, and if you start looking at a behaviour logically, it doesn’t work. To analyze behaviour, look at the biological basis of behaviour as an inherited trait conditioned by natural selection.

Consider, now, another logical anomaly: how Eteocles polarizes attackers and defenders into a binary “us and them.” While the defenders are nurtured by the motherland, honour the “throne of Modesty,” and enjoy the favour of the Olympian gods, the attackers stand ready to “strike like a serpent,” abuse one another, speak blasphemy against the gods, and carry on their devices images of night and darkness. In an insult to fact checkers, they even call the attackers a “foreign-tongued enemy.” What is more, Eteocles takes the binary “us and them” mentality and asks his constituents to take a side. Talk about divisive. Why does he do this?

If patriotism is a social behaviour, then it probably can be observed in other times and other species. You can see this behaviour in the social insects. In times of prosperity, honeybees are tolerant of bees from neighbouring hives entering their nests and borrowing supplies. In times of dearth, however, they attack every intruder at the gate. Anthropologists have identified in early hunter-gatherers evidence of a binary mentality cleaving sapiens into in- and out-group members. The Nyae Nyae, for example, a group of !Kung hunter-gatherers living in the Kalahari Desert “speak of themselves as perfect and clean and other !Kung people as alien murderers who use deadly poisons.”

This is where I turn to biologist E. O. Wilson’s theory of sociobiology where he posits that human behaviours, being encoded in the genes, have been selected through the long process of evolution. Reason and logic is a relatively new thing. These feelings of territoriality are a more ancient device, seeing that the behaviour of territoriality can be traced back from humanity all the way back to the social insects. Kinship is an old thing that ties together groups through behaviours and customs. We see it in the patronymic: by calling the defenders the “son of Astacus,” “Creon’s son,” or the “son of Oenops” Eteocles shames his defenders to at least equal their fathers. Skin in the game and patriotism may be, speculates Wilson, a behavior encoded into our genes through eons of evolution, allowing the animals who exhibited such impulses to multiply.

Though a valuable behaviour, patriotism or territoriality comes with pros and cons. Take Lasthenes, the defender at the sixth gate, who is described, positively, by Eteocles as being echthroxenos, or “hateful to strangers.” He is useful. But how useful is he in a time of peace? We can see in Lasthenes, how patriotism, being a hypertrophy and cultural outgrowth of an innate tribalism that unites kin groups into bands, can go too far. Here’s the issue: too little patriotism, and Thebes falls. Too much and nationalism and racism rise, stalling the spread of culture and information. A character such as Lasthenes walks a thin line. Being “hateful to strangers” he is an effective sentry. But what happens when the siege is lifted?

To sum up, I’ve looked at Seven through the concept of skin in the game, an idea found in political and economics discourse. By giving the chorus skin in the game, Eteocles unites the war effort inside the city. That this is an example of successful generalship can be seen by comparing what’s going on outside the gates with the attackers, who hurl insults at one another. I’ve also looked at Seven through a sociobiological lens. Sociobiology argues that patriotism and territoriality is a behaviour. By activating this behaviour, Eteocles mobilizes the defence of the home range. None of these tactics is logical. But then, human biology is illogical, an archaeology of many behaviours accumulated over an evolutionary timespan that’s hard to imagine.

Seven, by dramatizing patriotism highlights the advantages and disadvantages of biology. It is a most crucial play, as it provides a springboard into a broader discussion of patriotism, leadership, nationalism, and other critical issues we face in the twenty-first century: the problem of how to build a space age society from genes adapted to Stone and Heroic Age environments.

And, to get back to the original question: is Eteocles a capable general? By giving the defenders skin in the game and creating a divisive “us and them” heuristic he carries the day, raises the siege and destroys the enemy at the cost of only one casualty. Not good. But not bad, either. Just all too human.

– – –

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

A Risk Theatre Reading of Shakespeare’s JULIUS CAESAR

On 12 June 1599, Julius Caesar premiered at the grand opening of the new Bankside Globe, a three-thousand seat custom-built theatre (Sohmer 3–16). As Shakespeare had taken personal and financial risks to build and become a stakeholder in the Globe, it is fitting that he made risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action. In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare explores risk in all its guises: first, as danger, second, as exposure to danger, and finally, as the trigger of devastating low-probability, high-consequence events.

It is 44 BC.1 History has arrived at a crossroads between the old and the new, the Republic and the Empire, the last of the Romans and the first of the Caesars. On one fork lies dignity, uncomfortable liberty, and the rule of the unhappy many. On the other fork lies new things, comfortable servitude, and the rule of the one. Though history’s wheel inclines towards empire, the furrows, four-and-a-half centuries deep, follow the familiar ways. Risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action because the wheels are flying off the tracks. It is a time of risk and a time to take risks: at stake is the soul of Rome.

Four risk-takers—Caesar, Antony, Brutus, and Cassius—will clash as they wager all-in on the fate of the Eternal City. This daredevil quartet will trigger the improbable acts, accidental judgments, and unintended consequences that ensure Julius Caesar will be acted in new Globes many ages hence. As freedom is to the soul of Rome, so is risk to the soul of tragedy.

Risk as Hazard – An Improbability unto Truth

Polysemous risk has many faces. The first face of risk is its most familiar: risk is “danger” and “the possibility of loss, injury, or other adverse or unwelcome circumstance” (“Risk,” n. 1, 4b). From the get-go, warnings, prophecies, prodigies, omens, thunderstorms, and supernatural events, the shadows of unhappened things, simultaneously flash danger. It begins with the Soothsayer telling Caesar to “Beware the Ides of March” (1.2.23). Casca’s amazed “never till tonight, never till now” declaration quickly follows, amplifying the Soothsayer’s forebodings:

Thunder and lightning. Enter Casca, with sword drawn, and Cicero, meeting
Cicero. Good even, Casca. Brought you Caesar home?
Why are you breathless, and why stare you so?
Casca. Are not you moved, when all the sway of earth
Shakes like a thing unfirm? O Cicero,
I have seen tempests when the scolding winds
Have rived the knotty oaks, and I have seen
Th’ambitious ocean swell, and rage, and foam,
To be exalted with the threat’ning clouds;
But never till tonight, never till now,
Did I go through a tempest dropping fire. (1.3.1–10: Oxford edition)

To impart upon the audience the singularity of the moment, Casca adds to his litany of prodigies: a lion fascinating Romans, a slave impervious to fire, men on fire, the bird of night calling during day (1.3.15–28).

To Casca, the prodigies are illegible signs. Cassius, however, can see that the portents are physical manifestations of nature’s consternation that one man should wear the crown. Caesar had recently been proclaimed dictator for life (Plutarch Caesar 57). Now he would be king. Nature retches.

Brutus also sees nature’s goings-on. “The exhalations whizzing in the air,” he says, “Give so much light that I may read by them” (2.1.44–45). The prodigies, blazing across the sky, ensure that 14 March is a night to remember. As the scene shifts to Caesar and Calpurnia’s on the morning of the ides, the portent sensory overload continues. “Thrice hath Calpurnia,” says Caesar, “in her sleep cried out ‘Help, ho! They murder Caesar’” (2.2.2–3). She sees a dream where Caesar’s statue “with an hundred spouts, / Did run pure blood” (2.2.76–77). He asks the haruspices for insight. The priests cut open the sacrificial animal to discover that, though lacking a heart, it had lived, breathed, and ran. Even the omens about the other omens cry nature’s revolt.

Calpurnia continues reciting litanies of prodigies, recounting how the watch has witnessed a whelping lioness, graves yielding their dead, warriors fighting in the clouds, blood raining on the Capitol, neighing horses, the groans of the dying, and shrieking ghosts (2.2.15–24). The portents connect together the Capitol, the noises of battle, and the forms of war. It so happens that Caesar is heading to the Capitol to prepare for war. He will go east to recover the standards Marcus Crassus carelessly lost. At the Capitol, the senators will declare him “King of all the provinces outside Italy with the right of wearing a diadem in any other place except Italy” (Plutarch Caesar 64; 1.3.85–88, 2.2.93–94). Their declaration would fulfil an oracle in the Sibylline books that Rome could only conquer Parthia if led by a king (Plutarch Caesar 60). Calpurnia recognizes the portents presage ill. She tells him to stay home.

The portents heighten, increase, and augment the suspense. They activate our intuitions and speculations on the probable, the improbable, and the impossible. A black cat or comet is commonplace. So many cats are black. Every few years a comet visits. It is probable, therefore, that, every so often, one sees a prodigy. To see a flurry of prodigies, however, is improbable: a prodigy, by definition, is unusual and, therefore, unlikely. Calpurnia argues from probability to persuade Caesar:

Calpurnia. Caesar, I never stood on ceremonies,
Yet now they fright me. There is one within,
Besides the things we have heard and seen,
Recounts most horrid sights seen by the watch. (2.2.13–16)

While unsuperstitious (“I never stood on ceremonies”), she argues that the flurry of portents is overwhelming (“these things are beyond all use,” 2.2.25). In a stroke of dramatic economy, we are never told “the things we have heard and seen.” By tacit accord, however, unspoken things intensify the prodigiousness of the supernatural. To see so many prodigies is improbable, and, being improbable, likely presages catastrophe: in these portents are no rainbows and halcyon beaks, but the shapes of apocalypse now.

Calpurnia’s probabilistic argument echoes that of Casca, who says to Cicero:

Casca. When these prodigies
Do so conjointly meet, let not men say
‘These are their reasons, they are natural’;
For I believe they are portentous things
Unto the climate they point upon. (1.3.28–32)

Casca drives home the point, that, while natural explanations may account for scattered prodigies, they fall flat when so many prodigies “conjointly meet.” Although Shakespeare’s Cicero downplays Casca (1.3.34–35), the historical Cicero may well have agreed. In his treatise on divination, Cicero classifies the highly improbable in a category outside chance:

Can anything be an ‘accident’ which bears upon itself every mark of truth? Four dice are cast and a Venus throw [where each of the four four-sided dice displays a different value] results—that is chance; but do you think it would be chance, too, if in one hundred casts you made one hundred Venus throws? (On Divination 1.23)

Each prodigy is like a Venus throw. A Venus throw results: that is chance. If the dice were fair (and not the rectangular knucklebones of livestock), the probability of rolling a Venus throw is 1:256 (the outcome of four independent rolls being the product of their individual probabilities: 4 * 4 * 4 * 4). Two Venus throws result in succession: the probability is 1:65,536 (1:2562). This, too, chance will produce. But, should a hundred Venus throws happen in succession, it is no longer chance, as the odds—1:256100—are beyond all use. The number lies beyond nature’s ken. In powers of ten, you could scale the universe from Planck’s infinitesimal length to the broadest expanses of its outermost limits, and never encounter such an abomination.

Through a superabundance of prodigies, Shakespeare fills Julius Caesar with such abominations of probabilities that, whatever it is, it is no longer chance. It is something greater than chance. Nature, imbued with hylozoism, the idea that all matter is somehow alive, is partaking in history’s grand march. Improbability can supply the proof.

In the old day, they discovered that improbability could be the basis of something to believe in. Centuries before French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal was credited with putting belief on a probabilistic footing by making his famous wager known as “Pascal’s Wager,” an obscure theologian writing on the shores of North Africa found a way.2 Sometime in the early third century, Tertullian, an early Christian apologist, demonstrated that the higher the improbability, the greater the cause for belief:

The Son of God was crucified; I am not ashamed because men must needs be ashamed of it. And the Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd. And He was buried, and rose again; the fact is certain, because it is impossible. (On the Flesh of Christ 5)

Over the centuries, his conclusion certum est, quia impossibile (“the fact is certain, because it is impossible”) led to the anti-rationalist declaration credo quia absurdum (“I believe because it is absurd”). Improbability, by being unlikely, becomes the highest of signs and the most assured of proofs. It is a proof that dumbfounds naysayers because the unlikelihood of it being mistaken can be stated in figures which are ovewhelming.

I know not whether people today still believe it is impossible for the dead to rise. It is likely that some do. Myself, however, believe that Shakespeare uses improbability to announce that the Ides of March is a moment like no other. Revolution is in the air. The world will never be the same because the odds of so many wonders happening at once transcend reason. That the prodigies signify imminent historical metamorphosis is certain, because they are impossible. This is the improbability unto truth. Probability, the familiar stranger, is truly one of the least understood yet most potent of devices, whether on the stage of theatre or on the stage of life.

Risk as Opportunity – Caesarism’s Paradox

The contact point between the bicycle and the road is all but two square inches of rubber, one square inch per tire. Upon two rubber inches, riders ride. To hobby riders, harrowing alpine descents, hairpin corners, poor visibility, slick roads, and raging crosswinds are signs to ease off. Risk unnerves. To riders riding the Tour de France, however, these are signs to attack. Some attack to help teammates, some attack out of envy and spite, some from principle, and some for the thrill of it all. Descending the Col de Vars, a high alpine pass with gradients of twelve percent, at 80kph is pedestrian; go into the supertuck and scream down over 100kph. Attack them at the switchbacks on the world’s edge. Attack them where the road is slick or the visibility poor. Carve a line and drop them on the S-curves. If two square inches suffice, you will wear the coveted maillot jaune, the yellow jersey. Down they go on history’s slopes into time’s valleys, the Cassiuses, Brutuses, Antonys, and Caesars, blazing into glory or riding into ruin; it is uncertain whither.

This brings us to the second face of risk. Risk as a noun denotes hazard. As a verb, however, risk paradoxically denotes the exposure to danger (“Risk,” v. 1). Risk refers to both danger and its exposure because it derives from the early Italian risicare meaning “to dare” (Bernstein 8). To those reckless of danger, risk is opportunity. In Julius Caesar, many opportunities arise.

In the daredevil quartet, Caesar speaks least: he has 1126 words to Brutus’s 5394, Cassius’s 3709, and Antony’s 2540 (Rowe 152-53).3 His words, however, fascinate: with each utterance he is, curiously, assessing, defining, and saying out loud his relationship with risk. The Soothsayer warns him of grievous danger. Caesar looks him straight in the eye. “He is a dreamer,” says Caesar, “Let us leave him. Pass” (1.2.24). In a perfect pentameter line, he reveals his DNA. “Pure gold,” says Granville-Barker (374). “A line of magisterial finality,” says Humphreys (1.2.24). Though it is the holiday of the Lupercalia, Caesar is ever the general, his ear (the one that works) ever attentive. Like a general on the field, he is constantly identifying, evaluating, and negotiating risks. Risk affords Caesar an existential opportunity to be Caesar. Caesar becomes Caesar by walking the line.

Now, contrast Brutus’s attitude to risk-taking. As soon as Caesar’s Lupercalia train exits, Brutus finds himself alone with Cassius. Now, it is Brutus’s turn to confront risk. Cassius warns him of grievous danger. Brutus looks away (“If I have veiled my look,” 1.2.38). Cassius presses on, prompting Brutus to ask: “Into what dangers would you lead me, Cassius / That you would have me seek into myself / For that which is not in me?” (1.2.63–65). Brutus’s dithering reply, full of question marks, is a far cry from Caesar’s “pure gold.” Another fifteen lines later, they come to the elephant in the room: Caesar is fast becoming a god. Brutus awakens:

Brutus. What means this shouting? I do fear the people
Choose Caesar for their king.
Cassius.                                 Ay, do you fear it?
Then must I think you would not have it so.
Brutus. I would not, Cassius, yet I love him well.
But wherefore do you hold me here so long?
What is it that you would impart to me?
If it be aught toward the general good,
Set honour in one eye, and death i’th’other,
And I will look on both indifferently;
For let the gods so speed me as I love
The name of honour more than I fear death. (1.2.78–89)

Risk presents him with an ethical-political opportunity to demonstrate his ancestry: he is descended from Lucius Junius Brutus, expeller of kings. For the good of Rome, he would die.

Like Caesar, Brutus sees risk as opportunity. But, unlike Caesar, Brutus is slow on the uptake. “For the present,” he says, “I would not, so with love I might entreat you, / Be any further moved. What you have said / I will consider” (1.2.165–67). He retrenches into endless musings. It is not until the beginning of act two that he finds his magisterial line: “It must be by his death” (2.1.10). Caesar found his gold in one line and Brutus his after tens and hundreds. Their appetite for risk lies powers of ten apart because risk encapsulates the idea of both opportunity and loss.

Brutus appears to lack nerve. It is an illusion. Shakespeare has him hesitate for another reason: to show that Brutus has more to lose than Caesar. Once Brutus commits, he puts at risk his friend and benefactor Caesar (who, rumour has it, is his father; see Plutarch Brutus 5.2; Shakespeare 2 Henry VI 4.1.136–37), his wife Portia, his boy Lucius, and many Romans’ safety. Caesar, on the other hand, gives the impression that he has too little to lose. Brutus and Caesar’s differences are encapsulated in another work of art: the sculptor Auguste Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais.

Rodin’s monumental six-figure bronze sculpture depicts a tragic moment in Calais’s history. In ad 1347, Calais falls after a difficult siege. The English victor, Edward III, will tame the conquered: if six of Calais’s leaders voluntarily give up their lives, he will spare the people. The sculpture depicts the six volunteers walking to the gallows. Three burst out. The next three, with wandering steps and slow, stumble out. One interpretation is that, while the former are bona fide heroes, the latter deserve less commendation. Rodin rejects this interpretation:

While these three men of Calais may be less brave than the three first, they do not deserve less admiration. For their devotion is even more meritorious, because it costs them more. (Rodin Conversations 36)

The case between Caesar and Brutus is analogous: Brutus is held back not by a lack of nerve, but by a higher estimation of all he leaves behind. Shakespeare captures the beauty of all Brutus leaves behind in his final scene with Portia. He loves her more than he dares to tell:

Brutus. O ye gods
Render me worthy of this noble wife!
            Knocking heard
Hark, hark! One knocks. Portia, go in awhile
And by and by thy bosom shall partake
The secrets of my heart.
All my engagements I will construe to thee,
All the charactery of my sad brows. (2.1.303–9)

Adding credence to this view is his reaction to her death. Although he is a philosopher, his philosophy fails: “I am sick of many griefs,” he says (4.3.142).

Caesar’s final scene with Calpurnia lies in stark contrast. He chides Calpurnia, who rolls her eyes as she hands him his death robe:

Caesar. How foolish do your fears seem now, Calpurnia!
I am ashamèd I did yield to them.
Give me my robe, for I will go. (2.2.105–7).

She recognizes in this terrible moment her perceived smallness—and indeed, the smallness of all the world—when set against Caesarism’s immensity. This is the horrible contradiction of Caesarism, that, because everything must be on the line, and all the time, nothing can be worth much. It is easy come and easy go. That is the price Caesar pays to create the Caesar myth.

Risk speaks differently to Cassius. It presents him with an opportunity to reclaim his dignity. Cassius is a person we all know: the smartest kid in school, the valedictorian who was marked for celebrity. But somewhere along the line, he lost his way. Now you can find him in the taverns talking about his glory days: his 8.93 GPA, how he was recruited like a rock star, how he used to do things no one else was doing, and easily. Cassius is a has-been.

When Brutus and Cassius squabble, Brutus, in a fit of rage, takes a swipe at his dignity:

Cassius. Urge me no more, I shall forget myself.
Have mind, upon your health. Tempt me no further.
Brutus. Away, slight man!
Cassius. Is’t possible? (4.2.86–89)

Brutus’s “Away, slight man!” stops Cassius because the truth hurts. Back in the day, Cassius and Caesar would campaign together, colleagues in arms (1.1.119–121). At home, they would swim together in the Tiber’s flood (1.2.100–15). They grew up together, went to the same schools. Now Caesar has overleapt him. Now Caesar favours others (1.2.310). Now Caesar no longer returns his calls. They were equals. Now, when Caesar lifts his legs, Cassius, like a cur, stoops down. Cassius is envious.

Envy drives Cassius to distraction. On the night of the prodigies, he walks the streets, raving:

Casca. Who ever knew the heavens menace so?
Cassius. Those that have known the earth so full of faults.
For my part, I have walked about the streets,
Submitting me unto the perilous night,
And thus unbracèd, Casca, as you see,
Have bared my bosom to the thunder-stone;
And when the cross blue lightning seemed to open
The breast of heaven, I did present myself
Even in the aim and very flash of it.
Casca. But wherefore did you so much tempt the heavens?
It is the part of men to fear and tremble
When the most mighty gods by tokens send
Such dreadful heralds to astonish us. (1.3.44–56)

Not only is his shirt undone, he taunts the thunderclouds. Envy emboldens him. Recent events, however, are handing him an opportunity to regain his mojo. Although Caesar has not gone all the way, Cassius can convince others that Caesar will go all the way. That will be the basis of his sham conspiracy to liberate Rome. Once Caesar is dead he will walk his streets again, again the cock of the walk. That is his opportunity and his risk.

As Brutus and Caesar reflect one another’s genius—the former with too much to lose and the latter with too little—so too are Cassius and Antony mirrors. While envy prompts Cassius, the opposite emotion—friendship—moves Antony. Antony is “beloved of Caesar,” is the one who walks on Caesar’s right hand (2.1.157, 1.2.213). Caesar’s assassination affords Antony the opportunity to demonstrate the ties that bind. To memorialize Caesar, Antony, like a proper friend, will do cosmic terrors:

Antony. A curse shall light upon the limbs of men.
Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy.
Blood and destruction shall be so in use,
And dreadful objects so familiar,
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quartered with the hands of war,
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds.
And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side, come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines, with a monarch’s voice,
Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war,
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial. (3.1.262–75)

To do cosmic terrors, however, is easier said than done. It involves risk.

Caesar is dead. A void opens. Antony steps up to fill the void. That he does so is unexpected. Antony is the Roman Hal. Like Hal from Shakespeare’s Henriad plays (which were written concurrently in the century’s last lustrum), Antony is perceived as “gamesome” (1.2.28), a lover of plays (1.2.204), “given / To sports, to wildness, and much company” (2.1.189-90), one who “revels long a-nights” (2.2.116), and “a coward or a flatterer” (3.1.193). He is “but a limb of Caesar,” incapable of grand politics (2.1.166). Like Hal becoming Henry V, Antony surprises all. The surprises begin with Antony pledging allegiance to Brutus (3.1.133–34). If the conspirators look him askance, he offers his life (3.1.159–63). So far so good: he is welcomed by Brutus. Then, in tragedy’s white heat, he takes their hands, dripping purple gore:

Antony. Let each man render me his bloody hand.
First, Marcus Brutus, will I shake with you;
Next Caius Cassius, do I take your hand;
Now, Decius Brutus, yours; now your, Metellus;
Yours, Cinna; and, my valiant Casca, yours;
Though last, not least in love, yours, good Trebonius. (3.1.184–89)

Perhaps Homer’s Iliad—an ancient Greek epic that Shakespeare alludes to in the next act (4.2.180-82)—was on his mind here as well. In the crowning moment of the Iliad, Priam takes the hand of the man who has murdered his son [Priam to Achilles]:

“I have borne what no man
Who has walked this earth has ever yet borne.
I have kissed the hand of the man who killed my son.” (24.535–43)

Shakespeare exploits the full dramatic potential of Homer’s narrative by investing Antony with Priam’s lines: as Priam’s words awed Achilles, Antony’s actions awe the conspirators. Awestruck, they allow him to speak at Caesar’s funeral. Antony, in making the most of his opportunity, pulls off a coup.

Antony’s transformation into the man of the hour highlights the face of risk as opportunity. When dangers proliferate, the hero may be who you least expect. In ad 1415 at the Battle of Agincourt, it was the transfigured Hal, now Henry V. In 44 bc at the Battle of Philippi, it will be Antony. To do tales of glory is different than talking about tales of glory. The difference is risk. Talk is cheap. Doing involves exposing yourself to risk, kissing the hand of the murderer. Risk, though it denotes “danger,” is not all downside. Sometimes, when one takes risks, things swing to the upside. Risk opens doors. “Fortune is merry,” says Antony after his coup, “And in this mood will give us anything” (3.3.259-60). This brings us to the third, and final face of risk: risk as uncertainty, and even as destiny. Risk is truly a familiar stranger, one with the power to transfigure either a person or an entire world.

Risk as Uncertainty and Destiny – Crossing the Rubicon

But when at last the fatal die is thrown,
The hollow mask no longer serves, they fall
Into the mighty hands of nature, of
The spirit that obeys none but itself,
Knows of no treaties, and will deal with them
Not on their terms, but on its own alone. (Schiller, Wallenstein’s Death 343)

When one confronts risk, whether by throwing Schiller’s “fatal die” or by crossing Caesar’s stream, one opens the uncertain doors behind which peer snake eyes, black swans, unsolved mysteries, unintended consequences, unknown unknowns, and many things that were—before they happened—unthinkable. Risk, in this guise, is “uncertainty” (“Risk,” n. 2a, 2b). Uncertainty arises because risk-takers, having spread themselves too thin, can no longer cover their positions. Containing chance involves keeping some powder dry. Keeping powder dry, however, is the last thing on risk-takers’ minds. Risk-takers prefer to light up the stage with the fireworks of their all-in bets. When risk-takers leverage and multiply their positions beyond what they can cover, chance is in the ascendant.

In Schiller’s memorable phrase, when players play with risk, they fall into “the mighty hands of nature.” In this sense, the term “risk” recalls its derivation from the Arabic “rizq” denoting “fortune, luck, destiny, chance, and lot” (“Risk,” etymology). Risk becomes destiny. We think we master destiny, but chance is the true master. How we encounter and provoke chance is through risk. Risk is a gateway from a place where events occur in terms of probability or necessity into a place where wild improbabilities play.

Antony throws the fatal die by approaching the conspirators alone and unarmed. He pledges allegiance; he bares his neck; he takes their hands. It may turn out poorly. Instead, Brutus allows him to speak last at Caesar’s funeral (3.1.251). It is a boon he could hardly have anticipated. He will attain his finest hour in his funeral oration by inciting the mob to riot, lynch, set fire to the conspirators’ houses, and drive them running from Rome (3.2.246–52). Having thrown himself into the hands of nature, he feels a rising tailwind. Chance has his back.

After the funeral oration, the second half begins. It will culminate in the final confrontation at Philippi where they decide the fate of Rome. Brutus and Cassius have applied the tyrant’s emergency brakes, have activated powerful kill and dead man’s switches in a last-ditch attempt to save the Roman machine. But Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge, will have none of it, knows of no fail-safes, having now shed the mortal form of risk to take on risk’s incorporeal form. Risk is becoming destiny.

Brutus throws the fatal die when he decides Caesar must die. Caesar’s death opens a can of worms. First, he discovers that, to do God’s work, he must conspire with the devil: “O conspiracy,” he says, “Sham’st thou to show thy dang’rous brow by night, / When evils are most free?” (2.1.77–79). Next, he discovers that, by pre-emptively striking, Caesarism grows stronger, not weaker. Ere Caesar’s blood cools, Caesarism grows warm. Ere he finishes his funeral oration, Caesarism stirs:

Brutus. With this I depart, that as I slew my best lover for the good of Rome, I have the same dagger for myself, when it shall please my country to need my death.
All the Plebeians. Live, Brutus! Live! Live!
Brutus comes down
First Plebeian. Bring him with triumph home unto his house.
Fourth Plebeian. Give him a statue with his ancestors.
Third Plebeian. Let him be Caesar.
Fourth Plebeian. Caesar’s better parts
Shall be crowned in Brutus. (3.2.43–51)

As Caesar triumphed over Roman friends instead of foreign enemies, the plebs will bring Brutus home with triumph. Brutus will be a new Caesar, crowned their new king. Brutus had little idea the precariousness and power of risk.

Brutus preferred liberty because he had the luxury to ponder the constitution, the history of Rome, and the nature of freedom. It had not occurred to him that the tired plebeians, working nine-to-five, would prefer comfortable servitude to uncomfortable liberty. Though he dies, Shakespeare vouchsafes him the deeper understanding that comes with death: he will see the new direction the world turns. “O Julius Caesar,” says Brutus in his apotheosis of Caesar, “thou art mighty yet!” (5.3.94). As his day sets, Brutus understands how, in saving the Republic, he destroys the Republic.

Cassius likewise plays with the fates. He has assembled the right conspirators to access and assassinate Caesar. His band, however, is short on nobility and long on “youth and wildness” (2.1.148). They lack the cachet to usher in the new world order. To gain respectability, Cassius enrolls Brutus. By doing so, Cassius brings into the conspiracy the ineptitude of the good. The train wreck of unintended consequences quickly follows.

Cassius foresees division among the conspirators. To forestall division, he would have them swear an oath (2.1.113). Brutus, in his ineptitude of goodness, vetoes Cassius (2.1.114–40). Cassius foresees the benefits of inviting Cicero into the conspiracy (2.1.141–42). Brutus vetoes Cassius (2.1.156–62). Cassius, foreseeing the cunning of Mark Antony, proposes to kill him. Brutus, in his ineptitude of goodness, vetoes Cassius (2.1.163–84). Cassius, foreseeing mischief, opposes Antony’s request to speak at Caesar’s funeral (3.1.231­–35). Brutus, by the ineptitude of goodness, overrules Cassius (3.1.235–42). Cassius, foreseeing the advantage of rested troops, proposes to wait for the enemy. Brutus, thinking fortune favours the good, marches to Philippi. Cassius had little idea the ruinousness of virtue.

Like the others, Caesar triggers unintended consequences. The unintended consequences of Caesar’s daring is that it makes him hated and a hazard to the Republic. He can see how some are envious of his person, but he fails to see his threat to the Republic. He thinks the risks he takes benefit the Republic. “What touches us ourself,” says Caesar, “shall be last served” (3.1.8). He is there to guide the Republic: “What is now amiss,” he asks, “That Caesar and his Senate must redress?” (3.1.31-32). Like Brutus, Shakespeare vouchsafes Caesar the higher understanding that comes with death. Even after so many wounds, he would have lived, but when Brutus strikes, he realizes how odious he has become:

Caesar. Doth not Brutus bootless kneel?
Casca. Speak, hands, for me!
They stab Caesar, Casca first, Brutus last
Caesar. Et tu, Brute?—Then fall, Caesar! He dies. (3.1.76–77)

He conveys his astonishment at how hated he has become by speaking Latin. Ever the Caesar, he commands himself to die for Rome’s sake.

Each character, by taking inordinate risks, triggers indeterminate, out of control anarchy. Risk is the dramatic mechanism animating Julius Caesar. The more risk they take, the more they expose themselves to chance, the principle of which may be illustrated through the bicycle analogy. If you eschew risk, descending the Col de Vars on the brakes and black winds batter you, you will have a fright, falling like Gloucester in King Lear (Shakespeare 4.5.41). If you embrace risk, however, descending at terminal velocity where the wild winds blow, you will, with Brutus, say: “Fates, we will know your pleasures” (3.1.98). Risk makes a difference.

When players stretch their means beyond what their means will allow, they expose themselves to “incertain affairs” “fortune,” “the tide in the affairs of men,” and “hateful Error” (5.1.96, 5.3.110, 4.2.268, 5.3.67). Because he has set too much at stake, a trick of the light compels Cassius to kill himself: he thinks Titinius has been taken when, in reality, Titinius is hastening back to crown him in laurel (5.3.78-90). So, too, Caesar, Antony, and Brutus are, like Cassius, desperadoes on history’s verge, leveraging their mortal positions many times beyond their mortal prowess.

Wong contra Aristotle – Risk contra Hamartia

Ever since Aristotle, there has been a tendency for armchair quarterbacks to see personal fault, mistake, or error—otherwise known as hamartia—as the dramatic pivot in tragedy. The change from “prosperity to adversity,” says Aristotle, is brought about “by a great error [hamartia] of a character” (Poetics 1453a). If only the characters had been listening to the armchair quarterbacks shouting from their couches, they would have avoided the fall. From their couches, the armchair quarterbacks shouted: “Antony, do not party so hard, Caesar needs you to be sharp.” From their couches, they shouted: “Brutus, less principle and more ruthlessness, please.” From their couches, they shouted: “Cassius, be not so envious, accept your lot.” From their couches, they shouted: “Caesar, why go for a home run, when you can get by with a hit?” Many thought, and perhaps some still do, that these critics expressed high literary theory’s most profound truths.

The reason why Aristotle focused on agency in bringing about the fall was to rehabilitate tragedy. His teacher, Plato, had labeled the art degenerate, banning it from his ideal city-state (Laws 817a–e; Republic 607b). By theorizing that: 1) the fall results from error, and 2) the sequence of events follows a probable course (eikos, Poetics 1454a), Aristotle could argue that the events in tragedy, because they are “the kinds of things that might occur and are possible in terms of probability or necessity,” are replicable in life (Poetics 1451a; Wong “Faces of Chance” 98–99). Being replicable, the audience, by seeing the mistake on the stage, would avoid it in life. It is a brilliant argument, and one that restores tragedy’s social function. But it is wrong. While it is highly questionable whether the great error could so easily be subtracted from the individual, it is patently false that hamartia is the dramatic pivot of tragedy.

To Aristotle and the armchair critics, if Brutus had been more ruthless, he would have carried the day. If Caesar was not always hitting home runs, he would have lived, and so on. To others, however, Caesar’s confidence and Brutus’s goodness, far from being errors, were written in their DNA. Without confidence, Caesar would not be Caesar. Without goodness, Brutus would not be noble. Each great error is written into the DNA of a character’s blended humours. Aristotle’s “You would have scored had you not fumbled the ball” is impudent and unhelpful. The good and evil geniuses are bound together by the Gordion knot of human nature.

In this essay, I have offered you another reading, one in which the pivot of hamartia was unnecessary. Instead of error, risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. Instead of straight line runs of predictable and probable events following a tidy cause and effect causality, improbable events abound. “Et tu Brute?” says Caesar (3.1.77). “O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!” says Brutus (5.3.94). To Aristotle and the armchair critics, these words signify the characters’ reactions to the culmination of a sequence of events that followed a necessary or probable course. With their last words, the characters offer helpful advice to playgoers by recanting their errors. To keener critics, however, these words signify the characters’ utter surprise over the complete disproportion of their improbable losses in the face of the probable risks they took. Hamartia was the old dramatic fulcrum. Risk is the new dramatic fulcrum. The probable and the necessary were the old mechanisms: make mistake x and y will certainly occur. Improbability and risk are the new mechanisms: wager everything and anything can happen. When anything can happen, actions are no longer replicable. Risk falsifies the hamartia hypothesis.

Risk is the basis of my new theory of tragedy called risk theatre (Wong Risk). Risk theatre is, in turn, the basis of the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy, now in its fourth year (Wong Competition). Risk theatre is my daring attempt to restore tragedy’s legacy of audacity. Once upon a time, the greatest poet, inaugurating his new theatre, elected tragedy.

If tragedy is not about avoiding the same mistakes, then what is it about? These days we concern ourselves with statistics and awards, honours and accolades. The Pulitzer Prize is the measure of a writer. The best basketballer is the one with the most rings. The boxer dreams of going 50–0. Conversely, the self-published writer is scorned, the street-corner basketballer is a nobody, and the defeated boxer yesterday’s headlines. What a shame. I think the sensibility Shakespeare presents is that, whether 50­–0 or 0–50, the final record of victories, losses, awards, and accolades is inconsequential. What is important is how we comport ourselves on life’s journey.

In Julius Caesar, there are no “bad guys.” Cassius, Brutus, Antony, and Caesar shine. I think they are bright because they dared to overcome the smallness of their existence by the greatness of their daring: Caesar by daring majesty, Brutus nobility, Cassius choleric envy, and Antony friendship. In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare administers a concoction of ancient Roman values as an antidote to American virtue with its base preoccupation with statistics, accolades, and awards. Some win all and others lose all. That is inconsequential. What is important is how greatly one dares. The agon is for a moment; the beauty is forever.

If, in future ages, theatregoers exiting the theatres say: “I should be less envious; I saw what happened to Cassius” or “I should be less ambitious; I may die for my ambition,” then Aristotle will be proved correct: we can learn, in life, to foresee the things that the characters could not even imagine. Tradition vouches for Aristotle: for a long time teachers taught and students learned by pointing fingers, remonstrations, and assigning blame. If, however, risk is the trigger and do-gooders keep doing themselves in and politicians keep blowing up, then, perhaps, the dawn of the new day breaks here. On this new and blameless day, teachers and students, imbued with a higher sensibility than the rod, will insist that—instead of hamartia—risk is the great pivot because the soul of drama is less about fault-finding and more about entertaining. Risk, being danger, opportunity, uncertainty, and fate entertains in a way hamartia never could.

While we render unto Caesar what is due to Caesar, Caesar renders unto risk what is due to risk. What is due to risk are the entertaining and unintended consequences of “incertain affairs,” “fortune,” “the tide in the affairs of men,” and “hateful Error.” Risk entertains because what they thought would happen did not happen, and in a way they least expected.

The year is 2021. Wonders and signs return. History has arrived at a crossroads between the old and the new, the poetics of the probable and the poetics of risk. On one fork lies Aristotle, hamartia, and didactic theatre. On the other fork lies risk theatre, a magic gateway into the world of clouds, dews, and dangers. At stake is the soul of drama. Whither, Roman, will you choose?

Notes

  1. In an act of dramatic compression, Shakespeare binds three years of events (from Caesar’s triumph over the sons of Pompey in October 45 bc to the festival of the Lupercalia on 15 February and the Battle of Philippi in October 42) tightly around the centrepiece of Caesar’s assassination on 15 March 44 bc.
  2. In the game of chance known as Pascal’s Wager, Pascal sets the existence of God on a probabilistic footing by arguing for God’s existence based on the expected future value of the belief in God:

Let us examine this point, and say, “God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.…

Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. (81)

For a discussion of the wager—which is more complex than it appears on a first examination—  see Hacking 63-72.

  1. In terms of line numbers, Brutus speaks 738 lines, Cassius 513, Antony 361, and Caesar 155 (King 199).

Works Cited

Aristotle, et al. Poetics. On the Sublime. On Style. Translated by Stephen Halliwell, W. H. Fyfe, and Doreen C. Innes, Loeb-Harvard UP, 1995.

Bernstein, Peter L. Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk. John Wiley & Sons, 1996.

Cicero. On Old Age. On Friendship. On Divination. Translated by W. A. Falconer, Loeb- Harvard UP, 1923

Granville-Barker, Harley. Prefaces to Shakespeare. 1930. Vol. 2, B. T. Batsford, 1958.

Hacking, Ian. The Emergence of Probability. 2nd ed., Cambridge UP, 2006.

Homer. Iliad. Translated by Stanley Lombardo, Hackett, 1997.

Humphreys, Arthur, editor. Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare, The Oxford Shakespeare,     1984.

King, T. J. Casting Shakespeare’s Plays: London Actors and Their Roles 1590–1642. Cambridge, 1992.

Pascal, Blaise. Pensées. The Provincial Letters. Translated by W. F. Trotter and Thomas M’Crie,            Random House, 1941.

Plato. Complete Works. Edited by John M. Cooper and D. S. Hutchinson, Hackett, 1997.

Plutarch. Fall of the Roman Republic. Translated by Rex Warner, rev. ed., Penguin, 1972.

___. Lives: Dion and Brutus. Timoleon and Aemilius Paulus. Translated by Bernadotte Perrin,     Loeb-Harvard UP, 1918.

“Risk.” Oxford English Dictionary. 3rd ed., 2010. Accessed 5 July 2021.

Rodin, Auguste. The Burghers of Calais. 1895, Town Hall, Calais.

___. Rodin on Art and Artists: Conversations with Paul Gsell. Translated by Romilly Fedden,      Dover, 1983.

Rowe, Nicholas. “List of Roles.” Julius Caesar. Edited by David Daniell, The Arden        Shakespeare, 1998, 152-54.

Schiller, Friedrich. The Robbers and Wallenstein. Translated by F. J. Lamport, Penguin, 1979.

Shakespeare, William. Henry VI Part One. Henry VI Part Two. Henry VI Part Three. Edited by   Lawrence V. Ryan, Arthur Freeman, and Milton Crane, The Signet Classics Shakespeare,       2005.

___. Julius Caesar. Edited by Arthur Humphreys, The Oxford Shakespeare, 1984.

___. The Tragedy of King Lear. Edited by Jay L. Halio, The New Cambridge Shakespeare, 1992.

Sohmer, Steve. Shakespeare’s Mystery Play: The Opening of the Globe Theatre 1599.      Manchester UP, 1999.

Tertullian. On the Flesh of Christ. Ante-Nicene Fathers. Translated by Peter Holmes, edited by    A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 3, New York, 1885.

Wong, Edwin. “Faces of Chance in Shakespeare’s Tragedies: Othello’s Handkerchief and            Macbeth’s Moving Grove.” Critical Insights: Othello, edited by Robert C. Evans, Salem,   2021.

___.  The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. Friesen,          2019.

___.  The Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition. Risk Theatre, 12 April 2018,   https://risktheatre.com. Accessed 18 July 2021.

– – –

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine audacia nihil

A Risk Theatre Reading of Thomas Hardy’s FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD

In 1874, Thomas Hardy was thirty-four and moonlighting as a writer. His day job as an architect paid the bills. Far from the Madding Crowd, his fourth published novel, was being anonymously serialized in the popular London magazine Cornhill. Rumor had it that it was George Eliot’s new novel.1 It was a hit. Its success allowed Hardy to become a full-time writer. Like the fictional events in the novel, the real-life events that led to his breakthrough were full of chance, risk, and the random element.

The coincidences that led to Hardy’s rise began in 1862 when he started working for Arthur Blomfield, a London architect located at 9 St. Martin’s Place (Millgate 74). In the same building, at 8 St. Martin’s Place, was the Alpine Club (Halperin 740). Its president was Leslie Stephen. In 1862, Stephen published Peaks, Passes, and Glaciersrecounting his ascent—the first—of the Schreckhorn, a 4078 meter alpine peak. Hardy was familiar with Stephen’s book (Halperin 740–1). His familiarity was unsurprising: it was the golden age of mountaineering. What is surprising, however, is that years later, Stephen would be the one to give Hardy his golden opportunity. By chance their paths had crossed and by chance their paths would keep crossing.

Flash forward ten years. Hardy has moved to Dorset, where he was working on his third novel, A Pair of Blue Eyes. In November 1872, he picked up a copy of Fraser’s Magazine. One of the pieces was Stephen’s fictional short story, “A Bad Five Minutes in the Alps,” about a fall that leaves a mountaineer two hundred feet above a torrent hanging by a rhododendron stem. Hardy, captivated, rewrites Stephen’s story into his own (literal) cliffhanger scene in A Pair of Blue Eyes (Halperin 742–4).2 Their paths were crossing again.

That same year, Stephen became editor of Cornhill. He came across Hardy’s second novel, Under the Greenwood Tree. He must have been captivated, because he wrote Hardy asking for a novel. His letter, however, was dropped in the mud on a Dorsetshire lane. If a laborer had not seen it, the winter rain and wind would have carried it away (Hardy Life 98). Hardy received the letter in late November, even as he was rewriting “A Bad Five Minutes in the Alps.” He wrote back. Yes, he had a novel in mind. Its name would be Far from the Madding Crowd.

For over a decade, Hardy and Stephen’s literal and literary paths—though they knew not why—had been crossing. Then, chance made something happen. For Stephen to have offered the little-known Hardy an opportunity to join the Cornhill’s roster—which included heavy hitters Matthew Arnold, Charlotte Brontë, Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Anne Thackeray Ritchie, John Ruskin, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Anthony Trollope—was a godsend, and one that was lost and found, almost blown away by an errant gust.

Perhaps it was the impact of so many low-probability, high-consequence concatenations in life that led Hardy to foreground chance in his new novel. Far from the Madding Crowd entertains by flitting between tragedy and comedy. Chance is the narrative fulcrum between the two. The pastoral idyll, with its unchanging agricultural rhythms, highlights through contrast how accident, coincidence, and the unexpected rule life. Bathsheba Everdene, Gabriel Oak, William Boldwood, and Francis Troy—like Hardy and Stephen in life—wander their desultory circuit. For a duration, the steady state prevails. Then chance romps through, changing all. Chance is the invisible hand of the new god writing life’s text.

Between Tragedy and Comedy

Just as the architectural marvel of the great barn is built from arches, buttresses, and structures counterbalancing opposing forces, the narrative is built upon counterbalancing binary propositions. It is the work of an author-architect. On a macro level, the novel’s title announces the opposing forces between town and country: Far from the Madding Crowd is how Londoners would describe rustics, not how rustics would themselves describe. On a micro level, binary propositions can be seen in the narrator’s love of antithesis: “Deeds of endurance which seem ordinary in philosophy,” says the narrator in one example, “are rare in conduct” (368).3

In chapter three, a crucial binary proposition emerges. In their first conversation, Gabriel unintentionally provokes Bathsheba’s anger and embarrassment. She turns red. He turns away. When he turns back, she is gone. “With an air between that of Tragedy and Comedy,” says the narrator, “Gabriel returned to work” (24). The air is comic insofar as the conversation kindles his interest and tragic insofar as she leaves. The proposition between tragedy and comedy provides the key to the novel’s structure. As the suitors—Gabriel, the stalwart farmhand, Boldwood, the older gentleman-farmer, and Troy, the young and dashing libertine—vie for the hand of the independent and recalcitrant Bathsheba, the action veers between tragedy and comedy. Far from the Madding Crowd, as it counterbalances the ancient forces of comedy and tragedy, is, like the great barn, a marvel to behold and a work for all time.

The tension between tragedy and comedy is palpable when Troy tells Bathsheba that, while she means nothing to him, his previous lover, though dead, means everything. Distressed, Bathsheba barricades herself in the attic. To pass the time, she asks Liddy Smallbury, her servant-companion, for some books:

“Bring up some books. Not new ones. I haven’t heart to read anything new.”
“Some of your uncle’s old ones ma’am?”
“Yes: some of those we stowed away in boxes.” A faint gleam of humour passed over her face as she said: “Bring Beaumont and Fletcher’s Maid’s Tragedy; and the Mourning Bride; and—let me see—Night Thoughts, and the Vanity of Human Wishes.”
“And that story of the black man who murdered his wife Desdemona? It is a nice dismal one that would suit you excellent just now.”
“Now Lidd-you’ve been looking into my books without telling me! And I said you were not to. How do you know it would suit me? It wouldn’t suit me at all.”
“But if the others do—”
“No they don’t. And I won’t read dismal books. Why should I read dismal books indeed? Bring me Love in a Village, and The Maid of the Mill, and Doctor Syntax and some volumes of the Spectator.” (300)

Her initial choices assimilate her situation into tragedy. Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher’s The Maid’s Tragedy and William Congreve’s The Mourning Bride are both tragedies of passion. The Complaint: or, Night Thoughts on Life, Death & Immortality by Edward Young is a didactic poem reflecting on loss, fortune’s wheel, missed opportunities, and other tragic commonplaces. Samuel Johnson, in The Vanity of Human Wishes, likewise sets into poetry the follies preceding the fall.

Liddy picks up her mistress’s cue, suggesting another tragedy of passion: Shakespeare’s Othello. Then, as though to demonstrate life’s mutability, Bathsheba requests four comic works: two comic operas (librettist Isaac Bickerstaff’s Love in a Village and The Maid of the Mill), William Combe’s comic poem, Doctor Syntax, and the Spectator, a periodical featuring comic essays and character sketches. She signifies through her choices that life pivots between tragic exhaustion and comic rejuvenation.

Tragedy and comedy can be conceptualized as life’s two opposing poles. Such is the polarity the narrator presents when introducing Boldwood:

He saw no absurd sides to the follies of life, and thus, though not quite companionable in the eyes of merry men and scoffers, and those to whom all things show life as a jest, he was not intolerable to the earnest and those acquainted with grief. Being a man who read all the dramas of life seriously, if he failed to please when they were comedies, there was no frivolous treatment to reproach him for when they chanced to end tragically. (122)

In the narrator’s eyes, because life is a drama, it vacillates between drama’s two classic forms: tragedy and comedy. In this synoptic view, while comedy is associated with folly and jest, tragedy is associated with seriousness and grief.

As the novel takes on the qualities of tragedy and comedy, theatrical references accumulate. While daydreaming, Bathsheba imagines her future romances would be “dramas in which men would play a part” (12). Unexpected announcements create an “intensely dramatic effect” (252). A pause in conversation is an “entr’acte,” a French term for the interval between two acts of a play (106). The flames lighting the kiln at Warren’s Malthouse are theatrical footlights throwing onto the ceiling the shadows of the assembled rustics, who are themselves likened to the theatre troupe Her Majesty’s Servants (46: Penguin edition). In a serious turn, when Gabriel hands Fanny Robin a shilling, he can feel in her wrists the “throb of tragic intensity” (54). In a lighthearted moment, the narrator says that Bathsheba’s face appears to Gabriel, who is admiring her, “as the uncertain glory of an April day” (124). The passage draws from Shakespeare’s comedy, The Two Gentlemen of Verona:

Proteus. O, how this spring of love resembleth
The uncertain glory of an April day,
Which now shows all the beauty of the sun,
And by and by a cloud takes all away. (1.3.84–87)

At that moment, as though on a cue, a cloud arrives as Boldwood takes Bathsheba away.

As theatrical references accumulate, Hardy transforms Shakespeare’s well-loved characters into the rustics and farmhands that populate the novel. Shakespeare’s characters strut out again, this time on the pastoral stage of Hardy’s novel. While Shakespeare’s Antony in Julius Caesar leads the plebs on, saying: “I am no orator, as Brutus is, / But, as you know me all, a plain blunt man,” (3.2.210–1), Troy leads Bathsheba on, saying: “Because a plain blunt man, who has never been taught concealment, speaks out his mind” (169–70). In Laban Tall, a second Morton arises and a second tragedy unfolds: “Tall came into the enclosure, and leapt off—his face tragic as Morton’s after the Battle of Shrewsbury” (139). Just as the messenger Morton announces the tragedy in 2 Henry IV (1.1.70–1), so too, the mock-heroic Tall announces the pastoral iteration of the Battle of Shrewsbury: Bathsheba’s flock is dying and help is wanting. In a lighter moment, the narrator likens Gabriel to Guildenstern, a source of comic relief in Hamlet. “Like Guildenstern,” says the narrator, “Oak was happy in that he was not over happy” (145). Gabriel is happy, and, like Guildenstern, a step away from tragedy.

Hardy’s references to theatrical conventions and works familiar to the madding crowd—the educated big-city readers of Cornhill—translate the Wessex countryside into the Londoners’ idiom: a shepherd’s loss of a flock is “a pastoral tragedy” (38); Joseph Poorgrass and the rustics, thinking the farm will be ruined, think they are living “in a tragedy” (105); Bathsheba, confronted with an errant husband, cannot decide if farm life is more like the comic Love in a Village or the tragic A Maid’s Tragedy. Not only do the allusions draw cultivated city readers into the rustic country setting, once the novel has become a stage, Hardy has at his disposal all the elements of tragedy and comedy—such as tragic omens and stock comic characters—to use as narrative building blocks.

Tragic Omens and Stock Comic Characters

Omens precipitate negative turning points. A cat and dog presage Gabriel’s initial, unsuccessful courting of Bathsheba: “just as he arrived by the garden gate,” says the narrator, “he saw a cat inside, going into arched shapes and fiendish convulsions at the sight of his dog George” (31). A harbinger likewise attends Bathsheba’s disastrous journey to Bath:

“I hope nothing is wrong about mistress,” said Maryann, who with some other women was tying the bundles (oats being always sheaved on this farm). “But a’ unlucky token came to me int’house this morning. I went to unlock the door, and dropped the key, and it fell upon the stone floor and broke into two pieces. Breaking a key is a dreadful bodement. I wish mis’ess was home.” (215)

So too, before Boldwood’s fateful Christmas party, “a shadow seemed to rove about the rooms saying that the proceedings were unnatural” (348).

Omens, being chance events, amplify chance’s dominion. Nature communicates through chance. When omens congregate together, it is, to those in the know, a “direct message from the Great Mother” (239). “I’ve had the news-bell ringing in my left ear quite bad enough for a murder, and I’ve seen a magpie all alone!” says Poorgrass the night Fanny goes missing and the rickyard fire breaks out (70). After Bathsheba fires her bailiff, the farmers worry about the impact of her inexperience upon their livelihoods. They begin seeing tell-tale signs:

“Ay—there’s some sorrow going to happen,” said Matthew Moon. “I’ve had three very bad dreams lately; and Sally put the bellows upon table twice following last week.”
“A sure sign that sommat wrong is coming,” said Joseph Poorgrass. “I had a white cat come in to me yesterday breakfast-time. And there was a coffin-handle upon my sister-law’s candle last night.”
“And I’ve seed the new moon two months following through glass. I was told, too, that Gammer Ball dreamed of bees stinging her.” (105)

The wicked storm is also presaged by signs: a toad crosses the path; a slug goes indoors; spiders drop from the ceiling; sheep crowd together. The sky itself, in a display of hylozoism, expresses solidarity with the animal kingdom:

The night had a sinister aspect. A heated breeze from the south slowly fanned the summits of lofty objects, and in the sky, dashes of buoyant cloud were sailing in a course at right angles to that of another stratum, neither of them in the direction of the breeze below. The moon as seen through these films had a lurid metallic look. The fields were sallow with the impure light, and all were tinged in monochrome, as if beheld through stained glass. The same evening the sheep had trailed homeward head to tail, the behaviour of the rooks had been confused, and the horses had moved with timidity and caution. (236)

The portents are the pastoral equivalents to the tragic omen, a commonplace in tragedy. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, for example, wonders presage Caesar’s doom:

Calphurnia. Caesar, I never stood on ceremonies,
Yet now they fright me. There is one within,
Besides the things that we have heard and seen,
Recounts most horrid sights seen by the watch.
A lioness hath whelped in the streets,
And graves have yawned and yielded up their dead.
Fierce fiery warriors fight upon the clouds,
In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,
Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol.
The noise of battle hurtled in the air,
Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan,
And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets. (2.2.13–24)

So, too, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, omens anticipate the death of the king:

Lennox. The night has been unruly: where we lay
Our chimneys were blown down and, as they say,
Lamentings heard i’th’air, strange screams of death,
And prophesying, with accents terrible,
Of dire combustion, and confused events
New hatched to th’ woeful time. The obscure bird
Clamoured the livelong night. Some say the earth
Was feverous and did shake. (2.3.54–61)

Far from the Madding Crowd, like the art of tragedy, uses chance to anticipate what is to come.

If omens move the action towards tragedy, the likeness of Bathsheba’s suitors to stock comic characters moves the narrative towards comedy. One of comedy’s stock characters is the adulescens amator, the young man in love. The adulescens amator was such a standard fixture in Roman comedy, that, should he fail to appear, the playwright would be obliged to explain his absence (Plautus Captives 1032; Casina 64–5). The prototypical young man (such as Shakespeare’s Proteus with whom Gabriel is explicitly identified) falls in love and asks for the hand of the first lady that comes his way. So too, it is love at first sight for Gabriel: he meets Bathsheba and is on his knees. Just as the adulescens amator in comedy has to overcome blocking characters, Gabriel will have to overcome Boldwood and Troy.

One species of blocking character is the old man in love, the senex amator. From Olympio in Plautus’s Casina or Demenetus in his Asinaria to Chaucer’s January in the Merchant’s Tale, the senex amator is a common rival. Although the old man is wealthier and starts off from a position of power, he gives place, in the end, to his younger rival, and at a high cost to his dignity. Boldwood plays the old man in love. He is forty-one when he proposes to Bathsheba: twice her age and much older than the other suitors (127).4

As Boldwood plays the senex amator, his progression, mirroring that of Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, takes on further comic dimensions. Malvolio, deceived by a letter, woos a lady (2.3.151–57); Boldwood, deceived by a letter, woos a lady (98). Malvolio has a puritanical bent (2.3.142); Boldwood’s house has the atmosphere of “a Puritan Sunday lasting all the week” (99). Malvolio is transformed into a fool as he woos an unwilling lady (3.4.17–60); Boldwood woos an unwilling lady and is made a fool by Troy (224–31). Malvolio rues his loss of dignity (5.1.338–39); Boldwood rues his loss of dignity (202–03, 252). Malvolio is sent to the madhouse (4.2.7–9); Boldwood is sent to the madhouse (373–75).

The braggart soldier, or miles gloriosus, is another stock character, and an audience favourite. He is a dashing rogue, a libertine whose tales are greater in the telling than the doing. Examples of the miles gloriosus include Plautus’s bombastic Pyrgopolynices (“terrific tower-taker”) in The Braggart Soldier and Shakespeare’s Falstaff. Sergeant Troy plays the miles gloriosus. “Whilst he sometimes reached the brilliant in speech,” says the narrator, “he fell below the commonplace in action” (167). “He could,” says the narrator, “be eager to pay and intend to owe” (167). Troy would be at home in the tavern with Falstaff, Shakespeare’s jolly knight. Like Troy, Falstaff is eager to pay, but intends to owe: if only his pockets had not been picked, he would pay his “four-and-twenty pound” tab to Mistress Quickly (1 Henry IV3.3.73). Like the braggart soldier, Troy’s daring is better suited to charming ladies and circus tricks than fighting. When it comes to blows, he is bested by Boldwood and, if we admit the brawl in the unpublished “Sheep-Rot Chapter,” by Gabriel as well (228, 397). Like the comic soldier, Troy is the object of ridicule for those who see through his facade (193–94, 220–21).

Wessex is a stage. The malthouse kilns provide the theatrical footlights lighting the way for the new adulescens amator, senex amator, and miles gloriosus to walk the stage. When the action is grave, pulsing with disintegration, the countryside breaks out in strange omens presaging tragedy. But, when the action is gay and laughter-loving, when fortunes rise and marriage beckons, the novel approaches comedy.

Upside Risk and Downside Risk

In the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s Monk connects tragedy with downside risk:

I shall lament, and in the Tragic Mode,
The sufferings of those who once stood high,
Who fell from eminence, so that none could
Deliver them out of adversity.
For when Fortune makes up her mind to fly,
Her course no man is able to withhold;
Let no one trust in blind prosperity;
Be warned by these examples true and old. (178)

The Monk makes it through seventeen tragedies before the Knight interrupts. “‘Halt!’ says the Knight. ‘No more of this, good sir!’” (201). It is perhaps unsurprising that the Monk’s stories of one-percenters being cut down annoys the Knight, who is himself one of the elites. Instead of downside risk, the Knight would rather hear of upside risk:

And as for me, it is a real discomfort
To hear of folk who live in wealth and comfort,
And then, alas, learn of their sudden ruin.
But on the other hand it’s gratifying
To hear about a man of low estate,
How he climbs up and becomes fortunate,
Thenceforth abiding in prosperity. (201)

From the quarrel between the Monk and the Knight a revelation flashes: tragedy is the art that dramatizes downside risk and comedy the art that dramatizes upside risk (Wong Risk 233–43).

In both comedy and tragedy, chance, coincidence, sliding doors, mysterious synchronicities, the unexpected, accidents, improbabilities, the random element, unintended consequences, and mischance are ubiquitous. In tragedy, chance waylays the hero. In comedy, chance helps the hero. “Coincidence must be a divinity,” says Demeas in Menander’s fourth century bce comedy The Girl from Samos, “She looks after many of the things we cannot see” (163–4). Demeas has good reason to say this. Contrary to every expectation, accusations of fornication and adultery give way to a joyful wedding.

In comedy after comedy, chance brings the action home against a million to one odds. To end the internecine strife of the Peloponnesian War, the women of Sparta and Athens stage a sex strike. Their unlikely plan works (Aristophanes Lysistrata). In Greek New Comedy and its Roman emulators, the miser recovers the stolen gold (Plautus The Pot of Gold), kidnapped children are reunited with their family against all odds (Plautus The Captives), and young lovers  marry in spite of cantankerous patriarchs (Menander Old Cantankerous). So, too, in Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, Egeon’s execution is stayed when, a thousand miles away from home, he, his wife, his two sons, and their two sons’ slaves “accidentally are met together” (5.1.352). Comedy is an agglomeration of the most improbable events that work to the upside. The conditions of comedy represent such an extreme that a character can say, in a metatheatrical turn: “If this were played upon a stage now, I could / condemn it as an improbable fiction” (Twelfth Night3.4.125–26).

While chance, daring, and luck swing to the upside in comedy, the opposite happens in tragedy. In Shakespeare’s Othello, Desdemona accidentally drops a handkerchief. Desdemona, Emilia, Othello, and Roderigo die. In Sophocles’s Oedipus the King, the murder investigation reunites Oedipus with the Corinthian Messenger and the Shepherd, three characters long separated by both time and distance. Unlike the happy reunion of comedy, this reunion brings about a weeping and gnashing of teeth. In Aeschylus’s Seven against Thebes, civil war rages at Thebes, the city of seven gates. With seven attackers, seven defenders, and seven gates, 25,401,600 permutations of attackers and defenders are possible. Against 1:25,401,599 odds, Aeschylus brings about the permutation most inimical to the hero’s hopes, dreams, and ambitions (Wong “Aeschylus’s Seven”). Comedy and tragedy both dramatize risk events. When chance skews to the upside, we call it comedy. When chance skews to the downside, we call it tragedy. Hardyan chance works similarly as it maneuvers the narrative between the two.

The language of chance pervades Far from the Madding Crowd. There are “whimsical coincidences” (20). Mischance is referred to as “a freak,” something that happens “contretemps” (24, 119). Laborers “wait upon Chance” (43). Chance is capitalized, as though a god. Elsewhere, chance, as an active agent, can be seen to have “offered” something to someone (38). “Heartless circumstance” preys on unsuspecting characters (146). A “singular accident” ruins the best-laid plans (308). Eyes that “had been accidentally lifted at that moment” see things they ought not to (265). Comings are “sudden and unexpected” (89). A misunderstanding between All Saints’ and All Souls’ means the difference between life and death. The outcome of a marriage hangs on how much liquor the hired help drinks (276–83). Chance is everywhere.

The omnipotence of chance forces characters to make best guesses based on “reasonable probabilities” (317) and to warn one another “not to be too sure” even when the outcome seems certain (354). There is everywhere “many a slip” (354). Steeped in the world of chance, the characters gloomily admit that “nothing happens that we expect” (252). Chance is so pervasive that it fuels dramatic irony. At the shearing supper, Bathsheba sings “The Banks of Allan Water.” “One of the verses,” says the narrator, was “remembered for many months, even years, by more than a few of those who were gathered there:”

For his bride a soldier sought her
And a winning tongue had he:
On the banks of Allan Water
None was gay as she. (157)

In a few hours, she will meet Troy. So too, when Boldwood asks Bathsheba to marry him barring any “unexpected accidents,” (343) the reader hears irony, hears echoes of tragedy, of King Duncan saying: “This castle hath a pleasant seat” as he approaches Inverness where he goes to die (Macbeth 1.6.1).

Chance pivots the action between tragedy and comedy. Having begun in low estate, Gabriel has saved for ten years to become an independent farmer. He begins the fortunate climb of Chaucer’s Knight. A random act, however, triggers his pastoral tragedy (38–42). One morning, his overenthusiastic sheepdog drives his flock through the fence and down the precipice. Ten years of labor is lost. While Gabriel moves from comedy to tragedy, Bathsheba heads the other way. She begins in a state of destitution. Her uncle dies, however, and leaves her the Weatherbury Upper Farm. It is her turn to climb the ladder and grow fortunate.

After losing his livelihood, Gabriel hits the road looking for work. On his way to Shottsford, he passes a farm. A fire has broken out in the straw ricks. After putting it out, he asks for a job. Little does he know, he has stumbled onto Bathsheba’s new farm. Bathsheba marvels at chance’s power: “She scarcely knew,” says the narrator, “whether most to be amused at the singularity of the meeting or to be concerned at its awkwardness. There was room for a little pity, also for a very little exultation; the former at his position, the latter at her own” (52). Like Hardy and Stephen in real life, Bathsheba and Gabriel’s paths keep crossing. She hires him.

As is often the case between the sexes where feeling runs hot, Bathsheba, over a perceived impropriety, fires Gabriel. Or he leaves. Whatever the case, the day after he departs, she runs into her own pastoral tragedy: her sheep have gotten into the young clover. Blasted, they will die and are dying (136). Only Gabriel can save them. Through another coincidence, mistress and shepherd are reunited.

Chance also triggers the other two romantic interests. Bathsheba and Liddy toss a hymn book to see whether the anonymous Valentine sealed with the words “Marry Me” goes to Boldwood or Teddy Coggan (98). Chance selects Boldwood. The Valentine has an unanticipated and deleterious effect on him. He is transformed into the senex amatorblocking Gabriel, the hapless adulescens amator. In a world mindful of class, he easily bests Gabriel, his social inferior.

It is likewise “by chance or by devilry” that Bathsheba meets Troy (165). While walking a dark path, Troy’s spur and Bathsheba’s dress become entangled. In extricating themselves, their hands touch “by accident or design” (163). Her beauty’s flicker entices him. Their tragicomedy begins. If the novel had ended a few chapters earlier, Troy would have fulfilled his comedy by marrying Bathsheba. The novel, however continues. As it continues, chance works its strange ways, saving Troy from drowning only to kill him by a blast from Boldwood’s shotgun.

With Boldwood in jail and Troy dead, laughter-loving Bathsheba “was beginning to know suffering” and turns into a “bust of Melpomene,” the Muse of tragedy (270, 370). She marries Gabriel, the last suitor standing. The ending, perhaps, could have been foreseen: just as the adulescens amator prevails in comedy, Gabriel could have been expected to prevail. What Far from the Madding Crowd offers that is new, however, is an anastomosing path to the finish that is full of possibilities and rife with branches: this is not the unidirectional path of comedy or tragedy proper. “History,” says Hardy, “is rather a stream than a tree. There is nothing organic in its shape, nothing systematic in its development. It flows on like a thunderstorm-rill by a road side; now a straw turns it this way, now a tiny barrier of sand that” (Hardy Life 179). Like history, the narrative flows from the highlands down to the sea. The topography of comedy and tragedy proper presents a single, deep channel. The topography of Far from the Madding Crowd, however, presents a myriad forking, complex, and anastomosing branches through valleys dividing once, twice, and thrice.

Works set in the meridian times of chance, of which Far from the Madding Crowd is a signal example, remind us of the limitations of the straight line of want, will, and intention. They show us how the unexpected happens not some of the time, but rather, all of the time. Trouble happens because everyone has a plan until they run into the unexpected. The unexpected prevails over the expected because, while expectation aims towards one eventuality, the unexpected takes the shape of any eventuality. A successful harvest, for example, depends on multiple factors from the availability of labor to the climate. Many events must occur in the desired sequence. Any one wayward event, however, could ruin the entire sequence. In short, expectation is fragile because one path leads to success and the unexpected is robust because many paths lead to failure.

The Eternal Pastoral

The perfection of the pastoral world highlights by contrast life’s random walk. In contrast with the imprecision and instability of human affairs, the pastoral world is precise and self-regulating:

The river would have been seen by day to be of that deep smooth sort which races middle and sides with the same gliding precision, any irregularities of speed being immediately corrected by a small whirlpool. (87)

Troy hopes “in the nature of things that matters would right themselves at some proper date and wind up well” (309). The possibility of self-regulating human mechanisms, Troy comes to realize, is illusory. While self-regulating systems occur in the pastoral world, randomness prevails in the human world.

Like the river, the pastoral sky is a portrait of precision:

After placing the little creature with its mother he stood and carefully examined the sky to ascertain the time of night from the altitudes of the stars.
The Dog-star and Aldebaran, pointing to the restless Pleiades, were half way up the southern sky, and between them hung Orion which gorgeous constellation never burnt more vividly than now as it soared forth above the rim of the landscape. Castor and Pollux with their quiet shine were almost on the meridian: the barren and gloomy Square of Pegasus was creeping round to the north-west: far away through the plantation Vega sparkled like a lamp suspended amid the leafless trees; and Cassiopeia’s Chair stood daintily poised on the uppermost boughs.
“One o’ clock,” said Gabriel. (18)

Perfection is for the heavens. The sky is the dial and the constellations the hands of the great clock. Human time, in contrast, is aleatory and subject to chance, breakdown, and malfunction. Gabriel’s watch “had the peculiarity of going either too fast or not at all” (10). Bathsheba’s watch stops on the night before her wedding (387). While Jan Coggan’s pinchbeck repeater retains traces of the divine by speaking in the “still small tones” that recall the “still small voice” of God talking to Elijah, Coggan is already fuddled beyond hearing (279; 1 Kings 19.12). The pastoral timepiece of the sky, unlike human time, is perfect: its motions are the moving hands of time itself.

The pastoral calendar, insofar as it is linked to the celestial clock, is likewise robust. The hiring fair takes place in February on Candlemas (43) Lady Day in March sees the renewal of labor contracts (380). May is the month for sheep washing and June the month for shearing and the shearing supper (125, 142, 151). The harvest supper follows in August (236) and the sheep fair in September (331). The further away from the perfection of the seasons, however, the greater the dominion of chance. Lambing season ends some years in February, and other years goes past March (107). So too, the swarming of bees in a given month is a probability rather than a certainty (178). The helter-skelter lives of individual human beings lies at the far end of the range. Here, there is no certainty. Only probability remains. Certainty is reserved for the rivers, the sky, and the other furnishings belonging to the order of the eternal pastoral. Of these furnishings, the greatest is the great barn.

The Lindy Effect

A book that has been in print a hundred years can be expected to be in print a hundred more and a book in print for two hundred years can be expected to be in print another two hundred (Taleb Antifragile 318). Scientific theories, religions, and technologies that have stood the test of time for a thousand years can be expected to survive another thousand. This is the Lindy effect, the idea that the older something is, the longer its projected lifespan:

Lindy is a deli in New York, now a tourist trap, that proudly claims to be famous for its cheesecake, but in fact has been known for fifty or so years by physicists and mathematicians thanks to the heuristic that developed there. Actors who hung out there gossiping about other actors discovered that Broadway shows that lasted for, say, one hundred days, had a future life expectancy of a hundred more. For those that lasted two hundred days, two hundred more. The heuristic became known as the Lindy effect. (Taleb Skin 141)

The oldest Wessex artifact is the great barn. An architectural design concept triumph, it exemplifies the Lindy effect. Like the unchanging constellations overlooking the countryside, the older the barn gets, the older it is likely to become:

One could say about this barn, what could hardly be said of either the church or the castle, akin to it in age and style, that the purpose which had dictated its original erection was the same with that to which it was still applied. Unlike and superior to either of those two typical remnants of mediævalism, the old barn embodied practices which had suffered no mutilation at the hands of time. Here at least the spirit of the ancient builders was at one with the spirit of the modern beholder. Standing before this abraded pile the eye regarded its present usage, the mind dwelt upon its past history, with a satisfied sense of functional continuity throughout, a feeling almost of gratitude, and quite of pride, at the permanence of the idea which had heaped it up. (143)

To measure change, one needs a point of reference from which the change is measured. To see the gradual sweep of the heavens, one needs to find a fixed point, as Gabriel does when he stands atop Norcombe Hill: “To persons standing alone on a hill during a clear midnight such as this, the roll of the world eastward is almost a palpable movement. The sensation may be caused by the panoramic glide of the stars past earthly objects, which is perceptible in a few minutes of stillness” (15). In the world of the novel, the great barn is the fixed object past which mortal stars glide. From its vantage point, one can reckon the palpable movement of human activity.

Two major episodes—the sheep shearing and the harvest dinner—take place in the great barn. As the characters fuss, fret, flirt, and flutter, the great barn, though itself unchanging in its pastoral persistence, watches their changings of the guards, over and over. It had stood while the Hundred Years’ War raged. As the Tudors rose and fell, it stood. It stood during the Interregnum and it stood during the Restoration. As the Great Fire of London burned, it stood. When the printing press came to England, it stood, and it stood when steam engines arose. When Napoleon went on his wars of conquest, it was there, and having gained four hundred years of momentum, it could be expected to endure another four hundred: that is to say, to the mid twenty-third century. That the tithe barn at Cerne Abbas—the actual structure upon which Hardy modeled the great barn—stands today in the twenty-first century, however, means that the prognosis is to be moved upwards: by the Lindy effect, the great barn, having stood nearly six centuries, can be expected to endure deep into the twenty-sixth century (Bullen 35–38). Imagine that.

The pastoral world and, in particular, the great barn, highlight, by way of contrast, the role of chance in the characters’ lives. Time changes humans because human are perishable, but the more time goes by, the more the great barn stays the same because the great barn represents another order of things: the eternal pastoral. As a survey marker of eternity, it provides a frame of reference against which human transience may be measured.

Littlewood’s Law

Too often we ignore chance, relegating it into a footnote adorning the text of life. Chance in tragedy and comedy entertains, but the odds of an event a million to one against in life lay beyond the prospect of belief. We read Far from a Madding Crowd to experience the wildness of chance vicariously. That the real world is more stable than the fictional world, however, is a conjecture that, despite its appeal, is demonstrably false.

J. E. Littlewood, a Cambridge mathematician, demonstrated through the law that bears his name that, not only do improbable events happen more often than we expect, but that, when they happen, they impact us more than we expect: in fact, when they happen, they are called miracles. Beginning with the observation that we experience many events each day, Littlewood concludes that, by the action of chance, we should experience a miracle once per month:

Littlewood’s Law of Miracles states that in the course of any normal person’s life, miracles happen at a rate of roughly one per month. The proof of the law is simple. During the time that we are awake and actively engaged in living our lives, roughly for eight hours each day, we see and hear things happening at a rate of about one per second. So the total number of events that happens to us is about thirty-thousand per day, or about a million per month. With few exceptions, these events are not miracles because they are insignificant. The chance of a miracle is about one per million events. Therefore we should expect one miracle to happen, on the average, every month. (Dyson 273)

In the span of the novel, it would not be far off the mark to say that Gabriel has seen, on the average, one miracle every month. Low-probability, high-consequence events in the novel are like low-probability, high-consequence events in life: though predictable in their unpredictability, when they happen, they overturn all things.

Far from the Madding Crowd, in acknowledging the dominion of chance, presents an order of existence where intention is the slave of want, and want is chance’s fool. The ever-present eternal pastoral is like a rich, unexpected shadow over the narrative throwing in relief the indeterminacy of the all too human. Though the characters’ lives are thrall to chance, the rural-idyllic novel offers a folk consolation. “You should take it careless-like,” says one of the rustics, “and your time will come” (67). In a world chance has driven mad, it is best to keep going.

When we are “excessively hopeful and blithe,” or, in other words, in the midst of comedy, we keep going because “a trouble is looming in the distance” (350). When we confront tragedy, we keep going because it is during these worst of times that our “malignant star was assuredly setting fast” (323). In both the novel and in life a “not frequent disregard of the probable in the chain of events” may be observed (Hardy Preface 437). Whether chance crowns us or sells us down the river, however, is beyond our control. What is in our control is to believe, hope, err, and strive. To some, this consolation may seem insufficient. But, in the face of chance, the upstart god, to rear ourselves up forthwith upright is all that may be said as a certainty. If you keep going, you just might receive the letter, the one dropped in the mud on a country lane.

Notes

  1. An anonymous review from the January 1875 Westminster Review remarks how, when the novel was first anonymously serialized “many good judges pronounced it to be a work of George Eliot’s” (Cox 41–43).
  2. Stephen’s “A Bad Five Minutes in the Alps” is reprinted in Mallet 61–82. The cliffhanger episode in A Pair of Blue Eyes takes place in chapters 21 and 22.
  3. Unless noted, quotations are from Falck-Yi’s Oxford edition.
  4. Bathsheba is “Sweet-and-twenty” in the first February (67: Penguin edition). When Boldwood proposes to her in May, she is twenty or twenty-one (birthdays being unstated). Although the narrator says in the closing pages of the novel she is “three or four and twenty,” it is likelier that she is twenty-three—the novel covers three years and some odd months. In the first February, Boldwood is forty (76, 118). In May, when he proposes, he says that he is forty-one. At the end of the novel, he must be, therefore, forty-three. Troy dies on Christmas Eve two years after the novel begins (377). He is twenty-six. As the novel begins in December, he would have been twenty-four at that time, possibly twenty-three if his birthday is in December. In the first month of the novel, Gabriel is twenty-eight (11). By the end of the novel, Gabriel will be thirty-one and perhaps thirty-two if his birthday falls in the beginning of the year. It is difficult to square characters’ stated ages with their relative ages. At one point during June in the first year, Gabriel tells Bathsheba that he is six years older than her and that Boldwood is ten years older than him (190). If we go by Boldwood’s stated age of forty-one, this would make Gabriel thirty-one and Bathsheba twenty-five, considerably older than their stated ages. If we go by Gabriel’s stated age of twenty-eight from the previous December and allow that he may be twenty-eight or twnty-nine at this point, Boldwood would be either thirty-eight or thirty-nine and Bathsheba either twenty-two or twenty-three. The stated ages, however, appear to be more accurate than their relative ages: in another passage that takes place around the second September, Gabriel tells Bathsheba that he is eight—and not six—years older than her (345). Gabriel is either twenty-nine or, more likely, thirty at this point, making Bathsheba, in this reckoning, twenty-one or twenty-two.

Works Cited

Aristophanes. Four Plays by Aristophanes: The Clouds, The Birds, Lysistrata, The Frogs.            Translated by William Arrowsmith, Richmond Lattimore, and Douglass Parker, Penguin,     1994.

Bullen, J. B. Thomas Hardy: The World of His Novels. Frances Lincoln, 2013.

Chaucer. The Canterbury Tales. Translated by David Wright, Oxford 1985.

Cox, R. G. Thomas Hardy: The Critical Heritage. Routledge, 1979.

Dyson, Freeman. The Scientist as Rebel. New York Review of Books, 2006.

Halperin, John. “Leslie Stephen, Thomas Hardy, and ‘A Pair of Blue Eyes’.” The Modern            Language Review, vol. 75, no. 4, 1980, pp. 738-45.

Hardy, Thomas. Under the Greenwood Tree. London, 1872.

_____. Far from the Madding Crowd. 1993. Edited by Suzanne B. Falck-Yi, Oxford UP, 2002.

_____. Far from the Madding Crowd. Edited by Rosemarie Morgan and Shannon Russell,                       Penguin, 2000.

_____. General Preface to the Wessex Edition of 1912. Far from the Madding Crowd, by Hardy,             Alfred A. Knopf, 1991, pp. 437-42.

_____. The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy. Edited by Michael Millgate, Palgrave Macmillan,                1984.

Holy Bible. King James Version. Thomas Nelson, 1976.

Mallett, Phillip. “Leslie Stephen’s Bad Five Minutes in the Alps.” The Hardy Society Journal,     vol. 10, no. 2, 2014, pp. 58-84.

Menander. Plays and Fragments. Translated by Norma Miller, Penguin, 1987.

Millgate, Michael. Thomas Hardy: A Biography Revised. Oxford UP, 2004.

Plautus. Amphitryon, The Comedy of Asses, The Pot of Gold, The Two Bacchises, The Captives. Edited and translated by Wolfgang de Melo, Loeb-Harvard UP, 2011.

_____. Casina, The Casket Comedy, Curculio, Epidicus, The Two Menaechmuses. Edited and                  translated by Wolfgang de Melo, Loeb-Harvard UP, 2011.

Shakespeare, William. The Comedy of Errors. Edited by Charles Whitworth, The Oxford Shakespeare, 2002.

_____. Four Histories: Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, Henry V. Penguin, 1968.

_____. Julius Caesar. Edited by David Daniell, The Arden Shakespeare, 1998.

_____. Macbeth. Edited by Sandra Clark and Pamela Mason, The Arden Shakespeare, 2015.

_____. Twelfth Night. Edited by Andrew Worrall, The Heinemann Shakespeare, 1994.

_____. The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Edited by Clifford Leech, The Arden Shakespeare,           1969.

Sophocles. The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus.     Translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin, 1984.

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. Random House, 2012.

_____. Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life. Random House, 2018.

Wong, Edwin. “Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes: A Patriot’s Portrait of a Patriot.” Critical       Insights: Patriotism, edited by Robert C. Evans, Salem Press, 2021.

_____. The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. Friesen, 2019.

Probability Theory, Moral Certainty, and Bayes’ Theorem in Shakespeare’s OTHELLO

Marionet Teatro
Theatre about Science Conference
University of Coimbra, Portugal
November 25-27, 2021
Edwin Wong

Probability Theory, Moral Certainty, and Bayes’ Theorem in Shakespeare’s Othello

Thank you to the organizers for putting this wonderful event together and thank you everyone for coming. It’s great to be here. I’m Edwin Wong. I specialize in dramatic theory based on chance, uncertainty, and the impact of the highly improbable. My first book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy, presents a new theory of tragedy where risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. The book launched The Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition, the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy, now in its fourth year (risktheatre.com). Today, I’ve come all the way from Victoria, on the west coast of Canada, to talk about the intersection between theatre and probability theory in a play we all know and love: Shakespeare’s Othello.

Now, the first thing people ask when I say “theatre” and “probability theory” is: “How do you bring probability theory to theatre? How would you know the odds of something happening or not happening? —every event, even chance events, are purposefully written into the script by the playwright.” They ask: “Where is the probability in theatre?”

It’s there. Look at the language of probability in Othello. In Othello, Shakespeare talks of “proof,” “overt test,” “thin habit and poor likelihoods,” “modern seeming,” “probal [i.e. probable] to thinking,” “exsufflicate [i.e. improbable] and blown surmises,” “inference,” “prove it that the probation bear no hinge nor loop,” “I’ll have some proof,” “living reason,” “help to thicken other proofs that do demonstrate thinly,” “speaks against her with the other proofs,” and so on. The language of probability permeates the play.

The language of probability permeates Othello because, in this play, no one is as they seem. “I am not what I am,” right? Iago seems honest; he’s anything but. Othello seems a man for all seasons; he is, however, quite fragile. Desdemona seems unfaithful; she is, however, true. Emilia seems to have loose morals; she sticks to her morals, however, even when threatened with death. There’s a disjunction between seeming and being. Othello and Iago talk about it: “Men should be what they seem,” says Iago, “Or those that be not, would they might seem none.” Because seeming and being are at odds, you can guess what a person’s intentions are, but you may never know.

This brings us to the crux of the play: your best friend who you’ve stood shoulder-to-shoulder with in wars and who’s known for his honesty, is telling you your wife is getting it on with your lieutenant. You’re a little bit older, having “declined into the vale of years.” Your wife is young, as is your lieutenant. But, you love your wife very much and she seems constant. At the same time, you also trust your best friend. What do you do?

This is what Othello decides. If the allegations are true, he’ll kill Desdemona and Cassio. If they’re false, he’ll kill Iago. Someone will die. The problem is, how does he decide who dies? There’s no proof. Nor is proof forthcoming: Iago and Othello establish that Desdemona and Cassio, if they’re guilty, aren’t going to confess. And, because they’re subtle lovers, Othello’s not going to catch them in the act. In the real world, you could probably catch them, sooner or later. But that’s not the world of the play that Shakespeare’s created: in this play, there’s only seeming.

So, Othello will kill. Who he kills will be based on belief and probability. He can’t decide. But Iago helps him. He comes up with the test of the handkerchief. Now, the test of the handkerchief isn’t certain, but in the world of the play, nothing is certain; there’s only probability. Othello has given Desdemona a special handkerchief. Iago suggests that, if the handkerchief makes its way into Cassio’s hands, then Othello can take this as proof. Conversely, if Iago cannot demonstrate this, Othello can take this as proof Iago is lying. Lives hand in balance.

In their rush to dinner, Othello and Desdemona accidentally drop the handkerchief. Emilia, by chance, finds it, and, knowing that Iago is always asking about it, gives it to Iago. Iago plants the handkerchief in Cassio’s bedroom where Cassio finds it and asks his ladyfriend Bianca to copy the design: the napkin is of an unusual provenance, “spotted with strawberries.” Bianca, however, thinking the handkerchief a gift from some new woman, gets jealous and squabbles with Cassio. Iago, meanwhile, has set things up so that Othello sees Cassio with the handkerchief. Once he sees the handkerchief, he’s convinced: Cassio and Desdemona are getting it on.

Is Othello, jumping to this conclusion, being reasonable? The first great Othello critic, Thomas Rymer, found Othello’s actions laughable. He came up with a jingling couplet to express his distaste, saying: “Before the Jealousie be Tragical, the proof may be Mathematical.” Most people, I believe, would agree with Rymer and say: “Othello, what are you doing?!?”

Enter probability theory. In probability theory, there’s a tool called Bayes’ theorem. It’s used to calculate conditional probabilities. With it, you can revise probability estimates as new information comes to light. This is exactly what happens in Othello: new evidence—the handkerchief—comes to light that makes Othello revise his initial probability estimate. In Iago’s words, the napkin “speaks against her with the other proofs,” or the napkin “may help to thicken other proofs / That do demonstrate thinly.” How much does it thicken the other proofs? Let’s find out. We can throw some numbers figures into Bayes’ theorem, and it will tell us, in percent, how certain Othello is after he sees Cassio with the napkin.

We start off with what is called the prior probability. That is the initial probability before he receive new information. Now, before the test of the handkerchief, Othello says:

Othello. By the world,
I think my wife be honest, and think she is not,
I think that thou [meaning Iago] art just, and think thou are not.

It seems that he views the odds that he has been cuckolded as 50:50. His mind is evenly divided. So, we enter this into the formula.

Next, we need to come up with a probability value that represents the chance that Cassio has the handkerchief given that Othello has been cuckolded. The dialogue between Othello and Iago suggests that we should assign a high percentage to this figure, which, while not 100%, must approach 100%. Call it 90%. We enter this into the formula.

The final probability value we require is the chance that Cassio should have his handkerchief given that Othello has not been cuckolded. Although Iago suggests that lovers give away their tokens all the time, Othello’s reaction suggests he strongly disagrees. So, we can call the likelihood that Cassio has the napkin and nothing untoward has happened something low, in the order of magnitude of say 1%.

We plug all these values into Bayes’ theorem, and it gives us an answer: if Othello’s mind had been evenly divided on Desdemona’s guilt, once he sees the handkerchief in Cassio’s hand, he can be 98.9% certain that he has been cuckolded. So, it would appear, contrary to Rymer, that the “Jealousie was Tragical because the proof is Mathematical.” A certainty test of 98.9% is certainly high. Modern statisticians use a 5% certainty test to establish moral certainty, or, the threshold at which one has the right to act. Othello is well within this 5% range.

We can also play with the numbers to arrive at different results. Some might say, for example, that a 50% initial probability that he is a cuckold is way too low. Look, if your best friend—who is known for honesty—and your wife’s father himself is telling you to watch out, then the initial probability you are a cuckold is likelier closer to 80%. If this is the case, then, after the napkin test, the chances you are a cuckold go up from 98.9 to 99.7%. That’s equivalent to the three-sigma test that physicists, up to recently, use to confirm that their experiments are the real deal, and not an artifact of chance. 99.7% is quite confidence inspiring, and shows that Othello, after seeing the napkin, could be quite sure.

Of course, everyone says Othello was too rash. He should not have killed Desdemona. I get this. But then, should he have killed Iago? Remember, the play is set up so that he has to kill someone, whether Desdemona or Iago. This is where probability gets interesting. The question the play asks is: how high a degree of confidence must we have to act? Those who contend Othello achieved moral certainty also have to contend with the fact that he was wrong. Those who contend that Othello failed to achieve moral certainty have to wonder how today’s insurance, medical, and consumer safety industries—not to mention courts—often hang matter of life and death on less stringent significance tests.

The intersection between probability theory and theatre is one of the richest crossroads in research today. Not only can we talk about whether Othello should or shouldn’t have acted, we can compare Othello to, say Hamlet. Hamlet is told by the ghost that his uncle killed his dad. As Hamlet himself realizes, the ghost is much less trustworthy than a best friend. Next, just like in Othello, Hamlet stages the mousetrap, the play within the play, to determine, on a probabilistic basis, whether his uncle is guilty. Like the test of the napkin, Hamlet’s mousetrap isn’t perfect. But for some reason, we allow Hamlet to act. Why is that? These are all fascinating questions that arise when we examine theatre from the perspective of probability theory.

I’ve always believed that theory should service practice. How can probability theory add to the performance of drama? I saw an Othello this year, a fast-paced one, big-budget production. But watching it, I felt some lines were missing. It turns out, after checking the text, parts of the text were missing: the beginning of act one, scene three where the sailor gives conflicting accounts of the size and heading of the attacking Turkish fleet. I learned later that this section is quite often omitted from performances. What a shame: the scene illustrates how, so often in the most critical affairs, though we want certainty, we must act based on probability. This moment sets the scene for the entire play: Othello too wants certainty, but must act on probability. By bringing science to the theatre, I offer a powerful reason for including this scene in future productions: this scene unlocks the play.

If you would like learn more about chance in theatre, pick up a copy of my book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected, published by Friesen in 2019. This talk is based on a new book chapter that came out a few months ago called: “Faces of Chance in Shakespeare’s Tragedies: Othello’s Handkerchief and Macbeth’s Moving Grove.” It’s in a book called: Critical Insights: Othello, edited by Robert C. Evans and published by Salem Press. Follow me on Twitter @TheoryOfTragedy.

Thank you.

BAYES’ THEOREM

P(C) initial probability Othello is a cuckold 50%
P(~C) initial probability Othello is not a cuckold 50%
P(H C) chance Cassio has the handkerchief if Othello is a cuckold 90%
P(H ∣ ~C) chance Cassio has the handkerchief if Othello is not a cuckold 1%

                                                               P(H ∣ C)
P(C H) = P(C) * _____________________________________________________________

                                          {P(H ∣ C) * P(C)} + {P(H ∣ ~C) * P(~C)}

Putting it all together yields this result:

                                                               0.90
0.989 = (0.50) * _____________________________________________________________

                                          {0.90 * 0.50} + {0.01 * 0.50}

– – –

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

A Risk Theatre Reading of Aeschylus’s SEVEN AGAINST THEBES

Aeschylus’s tragedy Seven Against Thebes, winner of the Dionysia in 467 BCE, separates the impulse of patriotism into its constituent ideologies, emotions, and behaviours. In Seven, the spark of patriotism is kindled by the opening flourish of bugle calls. When, through the pathetic fallacy, homeland becomes motherland, the spark becomes a flame. Then, calling the gods and the fervour of religion under its banner, the flame becomes a fire. Finally, by drawing a line between us and them, the fire becomes a blaze. Individuality is seared away, revealing the archetypes behind the human mask, the ancient compulsions that speak through the heraldic devices emblazoned on the warriors’ arms. Aeschylus, by dramatizing a city besieged, presents a perfect prism which refracts the intense blaze of patriotism into a scintillating rainbow of ideologies, emotions, and behaviours that, while touching every facet of the human experience, is bound together by the biological imperatives underlying human nature.

Although remembered today as the father of tragedy and the eldest of the big three of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, Aeschylus was a soldier and a patriot. He fought in the four major engagements of the Persian Wars, where a motley consortium of bickering city-states checked the Persian Empire. In 490 BCE, he distinguished himself in the hoplite ranks at Marathon, where his brother, Cynegirus, perished. He fought in 480 at Artemisium and Salamis, and at Plataea in 479 when freedom came to Greece (Herodotus 6.114).

In the second century CE, the travel writer Pausanias visited Athens. He was surprised to learn that Aeschylus’s patriotism took such pride of place that the poet neglected to recollect his other achievements on his epitaph:

Aeschylus, who had won such renown for his poetry and for his share in the naval battles before Artemisium and at Salamis, recorded at the prospect of death nothing else, and merely wrote his name, his father’s name, and the name of his city, and added that he had witnesses to his valor in the grove at Marathon and in the Persians who landed there. (1.14.5)

The Athenians, however, remembered him as a poet and a patriot. The fifth century had been the Athenian century, the century where backwoods Athens had risen against empire only to itself become empire. Towards the end of the century, however, Athens was fighting for survival, exhausted by plague, stasis, and the Peloponnesian War. In 405 bce, Aristophanes’s comedy Frogs was produced. The nostalgic play reflects on Athens’s heyday, when civic poets promoted civic virtues, taking the city from peak to peak. In its reflections, it intertwines Aeschylus’s poetry with his patriotism.

In Frogs—which is named after the chorus of frogs that inhabit the lake at the entrance to the underworld—all the great tragic poets are dead. The tragic poets were the ones who had inculcated the Athenians with a sense of virtue and responsibility by holding the reflecting mirror of Achilles, Patroclus, and the role models of myth before the youth. In the logic of Frogs, Athens could be saved if a poet-saviour could be brought back from the dead. Dionysus, the god of tragedy, goes to the underworld where he judges a poetic agon between the two leading candidates: Aeschylus and Euripides. He will bring the winner back to life. Though a comedy, the urgency for a saviour was real. Athens stood on the brink. If it seems strange to ask a poet to save the city, remember that then, the division of labour was less pronounced. If moderns lived like the ancients, singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams would also be a field commander, four-star general Colin Powell would write Broadway hits, and playwright Caridad Svich would be Pope. Those were different times.

In their contest, Euripides’s ghost establishes the qualities that poets bring to the table. They offer “skill and good council” and “make people better members of their communities” (1009-10). Aeschylus responds with Seven:

EURIPIDES. And just how did you train them to be so noble?

DIONYSUS. Speak up, Aeschylus, and don’t be purposefully prideful and difficult.

AESCHYLUS. By composing a play chock-full of Ares.

DIONYSUS. Namely?

AESCHYLUS. My Seven Against Thebes; every single man who watched it was hot to be warlike. (1019-22)

When Frogs was produced, the real Euripides had been dead a year and Aeschylus fifty. Sixty-two years separated Seven from Frogs. Despite the recency bias in Euripides’s favour, Aeschylus prevails. In real life, however, Aeschylus was not coming back. Six months after Frogs, Athens fell. That, in the fantasy of Frogs, Aeschylus could be imagined as such a saviour, however, testifies to the enduring vision of nobility in Seven, a play which set fire to the flames of patriotism, the most patriotic of plays by the most patriotic of poets. In the character of Eteocles, Aeschylus gives us a patriot’s portrait of a patriot.

ETEOCLES’S STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS

Seven begins with Thebes, the city of seven gates, under siege. After an initial ranging of powers, the enemy mounts a final, all-in assault. In his war room atop the acropolis, Eteocles coordinates the defense. His is a master class in statecraft.

In his opening address to the Thebans, Eteocles delivers his vision of patriotism. Patriotism begins with a contradiction. While god is responsible for success, Eteocles himself is responsible for failure:

ETEOCLES. For if we win success, the God is the cause

but if—may it not chance so—there is disaster,

throughout the town, voiced by its citizens,

a multitudinous swelling prelude

cries on one name “Eteocles” with groans. (4-8: Grene translation)

Eteocles’s “heads the god wins; tails Eteocles loses” heuristic defies logic. It appears lopsided because Eteocles is pursuing two strategies that, considered singly, are at odds, but, considered together, amplify one another. His first strategy is to motivate the Thebans by rousing their blind and irrational hopes. Hope, as Aeschylus notes in another play, is one of the sapiens’s two greatest possessions:

CHORUS. Did you perhaps go further than you have told us?

PROMETHEUS. I caused mortals to cease foreseeing doom.

CHORUS. What cure did you provide them with against that sickness?

PROMETHEUS. I placed in them blind hopes.

CHORUS. That was a great gift you gave men.

PROMETHEUS. Besides this, I gave them fire. (Prometheus Bound 249-54)

Though despair whispers the day is lost, blind hope never surrenders. What is more, by invoking “god” and “success” together, Eteocles amplifies blind hope with the sum of his compatriots’ faith, their religiosity, and all their beliefs in providence. This is no longer blind hope, but a seeing hope kindled by religious fervour. They are on the acropolis. They see the temples, monumental projections of power. The emotion of hope coupled with the human predisposition to belief is a winning combination.

If the gods take credit for success, it stands that they should take the blame for failure. Anthropologist James George Frazer records many such instances in The Golden Bough. In one example, during a six month drought, the Sicilians abused the statue of Saint Angelo, their patron rainmaker. They stripped him, reviled him, put him in irons, and threatened him with drowning and hanging (86). In another example, he records how the Chinese would alternately praise or censure their gods. Compliant gods were raised to a higher level of divinity by imperial decree. Recalcitrant gods, however, were deposed and stripped of the rank of deity (85). Eteocles, however, takes an asymmetric approach to the assignment of praise and blame. Why?

Eteocles recognizes that an effective leader cannot transfer the risk of failure to others. Leaders who transfer risk are perceived by their constituents to lack skin in the game. Agamemnon in Homer’s Iliad illustrates the shortcomings of a skinless leader. Although Agamemnon apologizes to Achilles for inciting their ruinous quarrel, he transfers the underlying blame to Zeus, Fate, and the Erinys (19.87). “They made me do it,” he says. What a daft apology. So too, Agamemnon points the finger at Zeus when, facing mounting losses, he proposes to evacuate Troy. Though god was responsible for their setbacks, this is not something he can say. He is immediately rebuked by a junior commander, and to the resounding thorubus of his joint chiefs of staff (9.17-51). Unlike Agamemnon, Eteocles recognizes that leaders who wish to unify their peoples must bear responsibility. His second strategy, therefore, involves shouldering the blame.

By holding himself accountable, Eteocles aligns his interests with his constituents’ interests. He has skin in the game. The principle of skin in the game finds that, the higher the personal cost of failure, the more one is incentivized to perform. Knowing that, if their ship of state goes down, Eteocles goes down with them, is a great reassurance to his constituents.[1] They expect that Eteocles, in saving his own skin, will save them all.

In the final examination, Eteocles’s “heads the god wins; tails Eteocles loses” heuristic, while lopsided, works in real life. It activates the emotion of hope, engages the mind’s predisposition to religious belief, and unifies leaders and constituents by giving leaders skin in the game. Patriotism is the mood of an animal under stress, the outpourings of a human nature for which reason is a last resort. Patriotism prefers blind hopes, fast heuristics, deep-seated beliefs, and other strategies predating novel reason.

In the second half of his state of the union address, Eteocles states the motherland doctrine. For a patriot, the concept of homeland is too small to fire hearts. It must be amplified by the pathetic fallacy. The pathetic fallacy is a literary device that attributes human qualities onto inanimate nature. By personifying the land into a motherland, Eteocles adds urgency to the defensive effort. They fight for mother earth, the original mother:

ETEOCLES. Help Earth your Mother.

She reared you, on her kindly surface, crawling

babies, welcomed all the trouble of your nurture,

reared you to live in her, to carry a shield

in her defense, loyally, against such needs as this. (16-20)

Filial devotion due a biological mother is transferred onto the home range. The land is alive, suckling its babes. Every Theban who has drank her milk is her debtor. By turning mother’s milk into an intoxicating wine, Eteocles takes kinship, the most fundamental of relationships for sapiens and other social animals, and appropriates it for homeland security.

Patriotism is one of the most dynamic and encompassing forces of the human mind. By vesting human hopes onto the gods, the quality of patriotism engages the human predisposition towards religious belief, itself a primal calling going back at least sixty-thousand years to the Neanderthals, who buried their dead in elaborate funerary rites (Rendu et al. 81-6). Likewise, by transforming the home range into the myth of the motherland, patriotism repurposes for its own objectives the behaviour of altruism and fundamental notions of kinship and family. Social organization, emotions, behaviours, cult, and mythology, however, are only the starting points of patriotism, which is so much more. There is still to consider in- and out-groups, the higher ideologies, self-sacrifice, and monumental art, of which Seven itself is a bright example.

Us and Them

In Seven, there are two sets of us and them, one inside the gates, one at the gates. The first set of us and them are represented by Eteocles and the defenders of Thebes, on the one hand, and the chorus, on the other hand. The second set of us and them are represented by the two sets of seven captains: one defending and the other besieging Thebes. Eteocles’s goal is to unify “us” inside the gates and destroy “them” outside the gates. After his opening speech, he encounters the first them: the chorus of Theban women. They are making their way to the temples on the acropolis.

The chorus are terrified. They have seen “the wave of warriors, with waving plumes,” the “Horse of the White Shield / well equipped, hastening upon our city,” and “the jagged rocks they hurl / upon our citizens” (89-90, 112, 299-300). They have heard trampling hoofs, whirring spears, and screeching axles bruiting impending rapine, rape, and ruin (84, 153, 155). They come to prostrate themselves:

CHORUS. Shall I kneel at the images of the Gods?

O Blessed Ones, throned in peace,

It is time to cling to your images.

We delay and wail too much. (96-9)

Frazzled, the chorus say their raggedy prayers. Some turn to Zeus. “Zeus, Father Omnipotent! all fulfilling!” says one, “Let us not fall into the hands of the foeman!” (118-9). “Cypris, who are our ancestress,” says another, “turn destruction away” (140-1). After addressing the deities individually, they address the divine collective:

CHORUS. O Gods all sufficient,

O Gods and Goddesses, Perfecters,

Protectors of our country’s forts,

do not betray this city, spear-won,

to a foreign-tongued enemy. (166-70)

As the chorus say their broken prayers, Eteocles falls on them, rebuking them with strong words. To Eteocles, the chorus are either with him or against him:

ETEOCLES. You insupportable creatures, I ask you,

is this the best, is this for the city’s safety,

is this enheartening for our beleaguered army,

to have you falling at the images

of the city’s gods crying and howling,

an object of hatred for all temperate souls? (181-6)

The chorus protest: they were afraid; they ran to the gods; their actions fall in line with custom (211-6). Eteocles and the chorus engage in a stichomythic, back and forth exchange:

CHORUS. I am afraid: the din at the gates grows louder.

ETEOCLES. Silence! Do not speak of this throughout the city.

CHORUS. O Blessed Band, do not betray this fort.

ETEOCLES. Damnation! Can you not endure in silence?

CHORUS. Fellow-citizen Gods, grant me not to be a slave.

ETEOCLES. It is you who enslave yourselves, and all the city. (249-54)

Many years later, the great magician Faustus, having achieved world dominion, perhaps at too great a price, was looking for another way. He calls on God. “I do repent,” he says, “and yet I do despair” (Marlowe, Doctor Faustus 5.1.69). His is a negative prayer filled with self-doubt, spoken from the point of view of the damned. God spits it out. Eteocles’s quarrel with the chorus is precisely this: their prayers are negative prayers, spoken from the loser point of view. “Grant me not to be a slave” and “do not betray this city,” though prayers, lack skin in the game. Vanquishers have their prayers and the vanquished theirs. The chorus’ prayers are those of the vanquished.

Eteocles gives them a better prayer, one with skin in the game, one that partakes and has a share of victory. It begins by invoking the gods as the city’s allies, a joyous paean of thanksgiving promising them hearths flowing with the blood of sacrificed sheep and slaughtered bulls, their altars adorned with the foe’s spoils (264-79). Although they need time to adjust, the chorus rejoin Eteocles’s in-group.

The exchange between Eteocles and the chorus illustrates how patriotism overwhelms reason. Patriotism is like the instinct that jumps back from the snake even before the higher mental processes establish the nature of the serpent threat. So too, the chorus’ initial position may have been innocuous, and Eteocles’s binary arguments fallacious. But first survival: there will be time for logic after, if they live. In crises, instinct comes before reason and morale before logic. Eteocles, by unifying the city, checks off another box on the patriot’s rulebook. But there is still another them: the barbarians at the gates.

Patriotism strips humans of their personality and individuality. Once patriotism separates a man from his multitudes, what is left behind is a type, a caricature, a sign and representation of the raw biological forces animating the man. In the sequence leading up to the play, Eteocles had sent a Messenger to spy on the Argive camp. The Messenger, having learned the identities of the seven attacking captains, returns. As he relays the information to Eteocles, he systematically deindividuates the foe until all that is left of the man is his shield device, the proud advertisement blazoned on his shield. Deindividuation is part and parcel of patriotism’s process.

Stripped of his humanity, a man becomes an abstract representation. Polyneices is become the idea of justice, advertising on his shield a woman identifying herself as Justice leading a man—ostensibly himself—home (642-9). Others expose their animality. Tydeus stands ready to strike like a serpent (381). In Hippomedon and Parthenopaeus, the madness of the chthonian powers, hateful to civilization and the bright gods, breaks out. One has the fire-breathing monster Typhon blazoned on his shield, the other the Sphinx (493, 541). Through their devices, the two captains are reduced into savage personifications of madness and unreason. Others become caricatures of blasphemy. At the third gate, Eteoclus carries a shield on which:

A man in armor mounts a ladder’s steps

to the enemy’s town to sack it. Loud

cries also this man in his written legend

“Ares himself shall not cast me from the tower.” (466-69)

Capaneus goes further. He will sack the city “with the Gods’ good will or ill” (425-9). Parthenopaeus vaunts that he will sack Thebes “in despite of Zeus” (532). In this deindividuated world of patriotism where the abstract symbolic device stands in for the person, even a blank shield is a sign. Amphiaraus’s lack of a shield device signifies how “He is best not at seeming to be such / but being so” (591-2).

Patriotism is frugal, and typology is a sort of mental frugality. One is never oneself, but a sign, a sign of justice, a sign of animality, a sign of darkness and evil. Shield devices, vaunts, and even names are signs. Parthenopaeus, whose name means “the maiden one,” represents war’s rite of passage where a boy becomes a killer (532-8). Once the crowd have become types, it is easier to categorize them into in- and out-groups, the former bent on multiplying its seed and the latter on destroying it. Binary mentalities are a survival heuristic, practiced not only by the sapiens, but also by their animal precursors from ant colonies to baboon troops. Patriotism is not such a new thing. Patriotism started long ago.

Patriotism also demands that the defending captains become types. One defender is a sentry “hostile to strangers” (“Echthroxenos;” 621). Patriotism has distilled Lasthenes into that one quality. It is sufficient. Such is also the fate of Melanippus and Polyphontes, who are reduced into their elemental qualities. The former hates “insolent words” and the latter is “a man of fiery spirit” (410, 447). Other defenders are likewise stripped down. In a roll call of sons, one defender is the “son of Astacus,” another “Creon’s son,” and a third the “son of Oenops” (408, 474, 505). By emphasizing genealogy, Eteocles gives his troops skin in the game: sons must equal fathers. When even skin in the game is insufficient, he gives them land in the game: two defenders—Melanippus and Megareus—are born from the race of sown men, the original founders of Thebes who sprang up autochthonous, from the soil itself. In becoming types, they put on the uniform of patriotism.

In the narrative of us and them, not only human reason, but human madness breaks out. The invaders, though Argives speaking a common language, are called “a foreign-tongued enemy” (170). The unreason of patriotism in bending the truth may be motivated by hidden biological prime movers. Anthropologists have identified in early hunter-gatherers evidence of a binary mentality cleaving sapiens into in- and out-group members. The Nyae Nyae, for example, a group of !Kung hunter-gatherers living in the Kalahari desert “speak of themselves as perfect and clean and other !Kung people as alien murderers who use deadly poisons” (Wilson 92).

Patriotism may be, speculates biologist Edward O. Wilson, a behaviour encoded into our genes through eons of evolution, allowing the sapiens who exhibited such impulses to multiply. In this light, patriotism is a hypertrophy and cultural outgrowth of an innate tribalism that unites kin groups into bands (82-92). Too little patriotism, and Thebes falls. Too much patriotism, and nationalism and racism rise, stalling the spread of culture and information. Patriotism, like so many other all-too-human impulses, is on the spectrum. Lasthenes, with his Stone Age xenophobia, makes a good sentry. His value in peacetime, however, may be debatable. The limitation of biology is one of the issues with building a space age society from genes adapted to Stone and Heroic Age environments.

A Delivery Mechanism

Like a megaton bomb, the dramatic payload of Seven sits idle until Aeschylus devises an appropriate vehicle with which to target his audience. The outcome of Seven is part of myth. Myth is a great spoiler: the theatregoers know myth through and through. To make the theatregoers “hot to be warlike,” Aeschylus needed a powerful delivery system to sidestep the audience’s knowledge. In chance and the random element, Aeschylus found a far-shooting ballistic rocket whereby he could take an outcome, known to all the theatregoers, and explode it in the face of the play’s unsuspecting characters.

By making chance responsible for the fated outcome and by subjectively and objectively suppressing the odds of the fated outcome happening, Aeschylus brings myth to life. The audience, until the last second, sits in thrall, wondering how to reconcile what they know must happen with the contradictory data presented on stage. The greatness of drama lies in the dramatic sleight-of-hand in making the inevitable seem to have been impossible.

The fated outcome is that Eteocles and Polyneices will die by mutual fratricide. This is civil war. Polyneices returns to reclaim the throne. The play is structured so that the fated outcome takes place only if both brothers are assigned the seventh gate. Chance enters the play through the gate assignations. The seven attacking captains—one of whom is Polyneices—and the seven defending captains—one of whom is Eteocles—are all assigned their gates by lot.[2]

Mathematically, the likelihood of a compound event happening is the product of its constituent probabilities. The odds of rolling snake eyes, or two ones on a pair of six-sided dice are 1:36 (1:6 * 1:6). On that analogy, the likelihood of the fated outcome happening is 1:49, as each of the brothers has a 1:7 chance of being assigned the seventh gate. The probability, therefore, of the fated outcome happening is exceedingly low. In random simulations with seven attackers, seven defenders, and seven gates, 48 out of 49 times the fated outcome will be averted.

Aeschylus begins his suppression of the fated outcome by dealing the captains their assignations by random lot. Though his audience lacked access to modern probability theory (which arose in the Italian Renaissance with the work of gambler-mathematician Gerolamo Cardano), they grasped the fundamental notion of intuitive probability.[3] Ancient Greek had a term eikos which denoted probability or likelihood in the modern sense (“Eikos”). “To succeed in many things, or many times, is difficult,” writes Aristotle, “for instance, to repeat the same throw ten thousand times with dice would be impossible, whereas to make it once or twice is comparatively easy” (On the Heavens 292a).

Aeschylus’s audience would have understood that, from the randomness built into the gate selection process, the fated outcome would have been implausible. That Aeschylus encourages his audience to think about probability can be seen in the play’s aleatory references. Hermes is invoked in his capacity as the god of lots who brings captains together for mortal combat (508).[4] Ares throws dice to single out the quick from the dead (414). Even specific throws are alluded to. “I will take six men, myself to make a seventh,” says Eteocles as he initiates the defense. “The number 6 + 1,” notes Roisman, “was considered an unlucky throw in the six sided dice” (22). Seven is a most probabilistic play, aleatory and ludic, a game of chance and a game of death.

Through the lottery device, Aeschylus begins to suppress the fated outcome. Then, in a wonderful marvelous masterstroke, he discounts the odds of the fated outcome from 48:1 against to 25,401,599:1 against. Never did the waters of artistic imagination rise so high as when he painted the inevitable as nigh impossible. To dam back possibility’s flood, he engineered an architectural marvel: the monumental shield scene.

The shield scene consists of seven matched speeches between Eteocles and the Messenger, each separated by an intervening prayer from the chorus. The Messenger has been collecting intelligence. He has seen the seven hostile captains draw lots to determine their gate assignations, has seen their shield devices, has heard their vaunts. He informs Eteocles of the threats. As the Messenger identifies each captain, Eteocles draws a lot to assign a defender. Having assigned the defender, he analyzes the tale of the tape.

In this peculiar battle, men do not fight. Because patriotism has reduced men into types and abstractions, it becomes a proxy battle where signs and representations clash. By examining the clash of representations, Eteocles can see whether the gods are on his side. Chance has brought the combatants together, but chance is not random. The casting of lots was a means of divination. Through the crack of chance, the gods reveal their will.

The tale of the tape at the first six gates favours Eteocles beyond any reasonable doubt. If the enemy has Typhon blazoned on his shield, he is, through a strange synchronicity, paired against a defender sporting the image of Zeus (511-20). In mythology, Zeus tamed Typhon. If the enemy is a blasphemer, he just happens to be paired against a defender “honoring the throne of Modesty” (409). If the enemy appears to be sprung from the race of giants, he is, against all odds, paired with a defender who has the “favor of Artemis / and of the other Gods” (449-50). As the giants fell, so too, in this new Gigantomachy, the gods will prevail.

In addition to the overwhelming objective indications of victory, every subjective indication also points away from the fated outcome: enemy morale is such that they have already sent home memorial tokens (49-50); the enemy’s sacrifices are unfavourable (379); infighting plagues the enemy ranks (382-4). While every Theban—from Eteocles to the soldiers, women, old men, and young boys stand united—the enemy stands divided. The certainty that the foe is doomed rises to a pitch when the Messenger announces that, at the sixth gate, the best of the Argives—the prophet-warrior Amphiaraus—lays into Polyneices, telling him that his leading a foreign army home is an abomination to the gods. What is more, Amphiaraus says that he expects to be struck dead, such is the sacrilege of their expedition (571-89).

At this moment, time stands still. The odds of the fated outcome were unlikely. The pairings at each of the gates portend victory. The enemy is divided. Eteocles basks in the moral certainty of victory. It is almost a foregone conclusion. The chorus capture the moment of jubilation. In the beginning of the shield scene, the chorus, although undergoing rehabilitation, were still singing the fall of Thebes. Their prayers at the initial gates talk of success, but also of dying friends, ravishment, and fear (420-2, 455-6, 565). In other words, negative prayers. At the sixth gate, however, they find their stride in a devastating triumphant prayer calling on Zeus to “strike down and slay” the foe (629-30). The halcyon moment, however, is brief. The Messenger proceeds to the seventh gate, telling Eteocles his brother awaits. Eteocles, having dispatched the other captains, suddenly realizes the gods call him to die.

What are the odds that Eteocles would be encouraged by six perfect pairings only to be cast down in the end? In other words, what are the odds that Melanippus confronts Tydeus at the first gate, Polyphontes confronts Capaneus at the second gate, and that all the pairings took place as they did up to Lasthenes confronting Amphiaraus at the sixth gate? According to the law of permutations, the formula for the number of unique arrangements possible with seven captains at seven gates is seven factorial 7!  (7 * 6 * 5 * 4 * 3 * 2 * 1) or 5040. Since there are seven attackers and defenders, to find out how many permutations exist at seven gates, multiply 5040 by 5040. With seven gates, seven attackers, and seven defenders, 25,401,600 permutations are possible. The odds, therefore, of Eteocles being raised up from gates one to six only to be struck down at gate seven are 25,401,599:1 against. By suppressing the odds of the fated outcome to a nonce quantity, Aeschylus animates the myth. Never again in the millenniums afterwards, neither in Greece nor in the lands that practice the art of playwriting, has a playwright dared to dramatize a deed so explosively blowing apart the possible and the probable.

Though Aeschylus’s audience lacked a working theory of combinations and permutations, the Greeks did have a term sumplokē “intertwining, complication, or combination” to denote this sort of combinatorial analysis (“Sumplokē”). “Xenocrates asserted,” says Plutarch, “that the number of syllables which the letters will make in combinations is 1,002,000,000,000” (Moralia 733a). Plutarch also records that the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus, postulating the number of illnesses that arise from the different combinations of food and drink on the body, turned to a combinatorial analysis. Through an analogy, Chrysippus calculated that, from ten simple propositions (representing different foods and drink), over a million compound combinations (representing different ailments) were possible (732f). Chrysippus and Xenocrates’s attempts demonstrate that Aeschylus’s audience would have been able to infer the enormous range of possibilities in seven gates, seven attackers, and seven defenders. If their calculations are indicative, Aeschylus’s audience, if anything, would have grossly overestimated the possible permutations, making the play even more dramatic in its rebel probability.

The thrill of drama, is not, as Aristotle claimed, to bring about the probable outcome, but, is rather the opposite, to bring about the most improbable outcome, the one that is 25,401,599:1 against (Poetics 1451a; Wong 206-17). Here is no pity and fear, but rather wonder and awe, wonder at how, each time a pair of captains who are not the brothers goes to the gates, the fated outcome seems subjectively further away, but is objectively closer—although 25,401,600 permutations had been available at gate one, only four permutations remain at gate six—and awe for how Eteocles—like Caesar at the Capitol or Myron Scholes and Robert C. Merton at the Nobel Prize ceremony—stood highest when closest to the fall.[5] As Aeschylus brings the hammer down on Eteocles, however, he also exalts him. The highest form of patriotism is self-sacrifice: it separates run-of-the-mill from purple-hearted patriots. Though Eteocles dies, in dying Aeschylus vouchsafes him patriotism’s crowning glory.

The Ancient Quarrel between Poetry and Philosophy

In the closing decades of the fifth century, poetry, tragedy, and myth were under attack. “There is an ancient quarrel,” says Plato, drawing up the lines of battle, “between poetry and philosophy” (Republic 607b). With the rise of rationalism, it was time for the old poets to make way for the new educators of Greece, the philosophers. The fallible heroes of the old myths would make way for Socrates, Plato’s new and improved hero. The time had come for the sword of reason to shine:

[Socrates speaking] And so, Glaucon, when you happen to meet those who praise Homer and say that he’s the poet who educated Greece, that it’s worth taking up his works in order to learn how to manage and educate people, and that one should arrange one’s whole life in accordance with his teachings, you should welcome these people and treat them as friends, since they’re as good as they’re capable of being, and you should agree that Homer is the most poetic of the tragedians and the first among them. But you should also know that hymns to the gods and eulogies to good people are the only poetry we can admit into our city. If you admit the pleasure-giving Muse, whether in lyric or epic poetry, pleasure and pain will be kings in your city instead of law or the thing that everyone has always believed to be best, namely reason. (Republic 606e-607a, emphasis added)

As Plato mobilized philosophy, others, seeing a chance to make their mark, joined the assault. The historians, led by Thucydides, attacked the stories used by the tragedians as fake myth. While the poets “exaggerate the importance of their themes” and teach by using examples from the distant and unverifiable past, the historian would instruct by providing examples filtered through the rational apparatus of the historical method (1.21-22). Gods, oracles, and omens—so often the prime movers in tragedy—are replaced with the scientific apparatus of cause and effect, eyewitness testimony of what really happened, and the careful consideration, corroboration, and weighing of evidence. At the end of the fifth century, the winds of change were blowing wild.

Whenever myth engaged with the forces of rationalism, myth was driven back. In myth, the Trojan War was the greatest of wars. Thucydides examines it with the historical method (1.10). It emerges diminished. It may have well have been fought by village peoples. Rationalism advanced and myth fell back. Thucydides has Pericles, his new world hero, say that Homer is redundant (2.41). Rationalism advanced and myth fell back. Ion, a professional reciter of poetry, considers himself an educator, educating his audience on health, war, and the many other themes sung by rhapsodes. Ion, however, runs into the hero-philosopher Socrates in Plato’s dialogue Ion. Using the Socratic method, Socrates deconstructs his expertise. It turns out that neither Ion nor the poets know anything. They have nothing to teach. Rationalism advanced and myth fell back.

Rationalism invaded the prerogative of poetry as the teacher of Greece, and poetry fell back. Rationalism pooh-poohed poetry’s fake myth, its tall tales and childish gods, and poetry fell back. Poetry had made too many concessions, was in a full retreat, smarting from the sword of reason. But it had one advantage. Poetry charges the thunders of the heart. It gives its admirers something to believe in, a proof. Rationalism here falls short. It may explain how we came to be, but not why we came to. It is silent on our ultimate purpose. Knowing this secret, Aristophanes mounted a powerful rearguard action in Frogs, calling on art and the author of Seven rather than the new rationalists to save the city.

The crowning moment of Seven, the moment that makes patriots “hot to be warlike,” is Eteocles’s reaction to learning that his brother is at the seventh gate. He is out of captains. He sees the writing on the wall. “I’ll go myself,” he says, “bring me my greaves” (673, 675). Though he realizes the gods call him to die, he wants for himself “no crying and no lamentation” (656). The chorus, knowing that neither brother can hope to emerge from the confrontation alive, reason with him, telling him to save himself:

CHORUS. Go not you, go not, to the seventh gate.

ETEOCLES. No words of yours will blunt my whetted purpose.

CHORUS. Yet even bad victory the Gods hold in honor.

ETEOCLES. No soldier may endure to hear such words.

CHORUS. Do you wish to reap as harvest a brother’s blood?

ETEOCLES. If Gods give ill, no man may shun their giving. (714-9)

In his final words, he tells the chorus that he feels the “whetted purpose” thundering in his heart. This is proof enough. He will fulfil his duty by making the highest sacrifice, the “admirable offering” gods and mortals alike will envy:

ETEOCLES. We are already past the care of Gods.

For them our death is the admirable offering.

Why then delay, fawning upon our doom? (703-5)

Patriotism gives patriots something that the logicians and rationalists never could: something greater than life to live and die for. Patriotism takes the raw biological basis of human nature, hidden from plain view by the mediating apparatus of consciousness, and codifies it in its strictures. It takes the primordial murmurings of tribalism and the irrational emotions of gentle altruism and hateful aggression, and unites them under a common banner. It then harnesses the myriad impulses which draw the sapiens into ever higher levels of social organization—from nomadic life to life in hamlets, cities, and megalopolises—to give the patriot something to believe in.

The patriot, with his tribalism, hears the murmuring song singing new syllogisms, singing of the beauty of kinsfolk and the ugliness of those who dwell beyond the gates. With these new syllogisms, the patriot lays down patriotism’s doctrine, beginning with in- and out-membership groups. To draw himself up to a higher perfection, the patriot takes the other, and turns the other into a sign and representation of all that he must, in his highest moment, overcome. In his fever, the patriot desires no mediocre other, but rather the highest type of other, the most gargantuan other against which he can assay his rising strength. He transforms the other into a bogeyman adorned with blasphemy, the dark images of the night, the eye of the full moon, the serpent’s hiss, and all the other trappings inimical to kin and civilization. Against this error of nature, the patriot girds his kin together in a tight embrace. To withstand such a powerful foe, the patriot himself enlists higher powers, builds shrines to the gods and talks of motherland and fatherland, talks of how the land and the folk are bound by ancient, inviolable, and reciprocal bonds.

Surrounded by powerful and holy monuments, spires reaching up into heaven like the arms of god, the patriot begins to see that he himself is part of the proof, is the son of a line of heroes in a patrilineal and matrilineal succession going back to the crack of time. He himself dissolves into a symbol and representation, the mortal instrument of an immortal purpose. Armed now with high ideology, the patriot now has proof of his goodness, of how his people were meant to persevere, the chosen ones tilling the chosen soil. Heeding the higher calling of country, god, and people, the patriot validates the desultory dross of life and drinks in the sense of belonging and purpose so foreign to the logicians and the rationalists who could only see the wisdom of the sapiens, but not the underlying biology firing the human fuse.

Now, eternally justified, the patriot is himself life’s proof. Having reached this exalted state, there is left but one act whereby he perfects life. To the rationalist who talked of virtue, there was no difference between virtue in theory and in practice. To the patriot, there is. Talk is cheap, insufficient skin. To die performing great heroic deeds is to have the highest skin in the game. It is the patriot’s finest hour, the hour of the affirmation of the highest existence.

In this curious battle, the outcome is exactly as Eteocles predicted. The city is saved. In fact, on the Theban side, there is only a single casualty. In the closing scene the Herald makes a proclamation:

HERALD. Our Lord Eteocles for his loyalty

it is determined to bury in the earth

that he so loved. Fighting its enemies

he found his death here. In the sight

of his ancestral shrines he is pure and blameless

and died where young men die right honorably. (1006-11)

In his burial, in the dirges and the wailing, it is accomplished. Eteocles’s sepulchres and monuments stand as inviolable proofs of his patriotic apotheosis. Though dead, he is born posthumously in Seven to light the way for all tomorrow’s standard-bearers. Patriotism, having enlisted human emotions and behaviours into its service, now calls out to one of the highest constructs of the human mind—art—to justify its eternal claim.

To rational minds, Seven dramatized the clash between the magic of the opposing shield devices. Eteocles, like a seer, interprets the combatants’ vaunts and shield devices. By the science of hermeneutics, he deciphers—and perhaps even manipulates—the hidden signs animating the cosmos. For these reasonable interpreters, Eteocles came close to mastering hermeneutics. To them, Seven is a tragedy of Eteocles’s discourtesy to the chorus and his hubris in thinking he could master the gates. To the interpreters, however, who feel the comprehensiveness of the human experience, for those whom not only the higher and evolved sensibilities, but also the lower and primal drives of the triune brain declare themselves, Seven dramatizes the myriad impulses which together constitute patriotism, hot to endure all time’s slings and arrows. To these other interpreters, Seven is a kaleidoscope of patriotism, reflecting all its changing patterns and colours, from its animal origins to its highest expressions in art, architecture, and culture. Gate by gate, Eteocles is stripped of his personality until, at the seventh gate, all his individual qualities have withdrawn behind patriotism’s mask. He is no longer man, but an incarnation of duty, the great intoxicated patriot, drunk on valour of the ages. Seven, in this more unified view, is a tragedy of the paradox of patriotism, the mystery of how one becomes greatest when one becomes nothing. We do not, perhaps, exist for our own sake, but for the sake of perpetuating the generations of leaves on the tree of life.

In this comprehensive view, patriotism is greater than either the philosophers or the mythographers have imagined. Patriotism is a human expression of the animal behaviour of territoriality, practised by each of the social animals from ants and hyenas to baboons and chimpanzees. As animals mark their home range in elaborate rituals, so too the sapiens mark their territories with doors, locks, gates, gatekeepers, walls, and banners in the sky. Patriotism in this last examination is a biological imperative, is the will to power driving natural selection. To ensure the survival of the species, it will mingle reason with unreason, self-preservation with self-sacrifice, and base ideologies with the highest of the arts and sciences. In the art of Seven, a patriot’s portrait of patriotism, the ancient calling calls out.

Seven reminds us that you can take the individual out of the country, but not the country out of the individual. Though part of our highest ideologies and mental constructs, patriotism is also felt in the blood. Nowhere is this more evident than in the legacy of Seven, where generations of youths, ardent for desperate glory, fulfilled biology’s gnarled imperative: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Aeschylus. Aeschylus. Edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore, U of Chicago P, 1959.

Apollodorus. The Library of Greek Mythology. Translated by Robin Hard, Oxford UP, 1997.

Aristophanes. Clouds, Wasps, Peace. Translated by Jeffrey Henderson, Loeb-Harvard UP, 1998.

—. Frogs, Assemblywomen, Wealth. Translated by Jeffrey Henderson, Loeb-Harvard UP, 2002.

Aristotle. On the Heavens. Translated by W. K. C. Guthrie, Loeb-Harvard UP, 1939.

Aristotle, et al. Poetics, On the Sublime, On Style. Translated by Stephen Halliwell, W. H. Fyfe, and Doreen C. Innes, Loeb-Harvard UP, 1995.

Echthroxenos.” A Greek-English Lexicon, compiled by Liddell, Scott, and Jones, 9th ed., Oxford UP, 1996.

Eikos.” A Greek-English Lexicon, compiled by Liddell, Scott, and Jones, 9th ed., Oxford UP, 1996.

Frazer, James George. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Abridged ed., Macmillan, 1922.

Herodotus. The Histories. Translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt, revised by John M. Marincola, Penguin, 1996.

Herrmann, Fritz-Gregor. “Eteocles’ Decision in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes.” Tragedy and Archaic Greek Thought, edited by Douglas Cairns, Classical P of Wales, 2013, pp. 39- 80.

Homer. The Iliad of Homer. Translated by Richmond Lattimore, U of Chicago P, 1951.

Kidd, Stephen. “Why Mathematical Probability Failed to Emerge from Ancient Gambling.” Apeiron, vol. 53, no. 1, 2020, pp. 1-25.

Lowenstein, Roger. When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management.             2000. Random House, 2011.

Marlowe. The Complete Plays. Edited by J. B. Steane, Penguin, 1969.

Pausanias. Description of Greece: Books 1-2. Translated by W. H. S. Jones, Loeb-Harvard UP,   1918.

Plato. Complete Works. Edited by John M. Cooper, Hackett, 1997.

Plutarch. Moralia. Translated by Edwin L. Minar, Jr., F. H. Sandbach, and W. C. Helmbold, vol. 9, Loeb-Harvard UP, 1961.

Rendu, William, et al. “Evidence supporting an intentional Neandertal burial at La Chapelle-        aux-Saints.”Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 111, no. 1, Jan. 2014, pp. 81-6.

Roisman, Hanna M. “The Messenger and Eteocles in the Seven against Thebes.” L’antiquité        classique, vol. 59, 1990, pp. 17-36.

Sumplokē.” A Greek-English Lexicon, compiled by Liddell, Scott, and Jones, 9th ed., Oxford UP, 1996.

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life. Random House,    2018.

Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. Translated by Rex Warner, Penguin, 1972.

Wilson, Edward O. On Human Nature. 25th anniversary ed., Harvard UP, 2004.

Wong, Edwin. The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. Friesen, 2019.

[1] For examples of negative incentives, see Taleb 12-15..

[2] That the attackers draw lots to determine their gate assignations is confirmed by the Messenger (56-7, 377, 424, and 456-9). How Eteocles assigns the defenders’ assignations is unclear. When assigning the defenders, Eteocles uses the future tense three times (“I will station,” 408, 621, 672), the perfect tense two times (“he has been sent,” 448, 472), the aorist passive once (“he was chosen,” 505), and the present tense once (“here is the man,” 554). Previous conjectures that have arisen to explain the tenses fall into three broad categories: 1) Eteocles had decided all the assignations prior to meeting the Messenger, 2) Eteocles decides the assignations on the spot, after hearing the Messenger’s reports, and 3) Eteocles decided some assignations before and some during his meeting with the Messenger. I follow Herrmann 58-62. In his bold conjecture, Herrmann argues that an important stage direction has been lost: each time the Messenger relays the assailant at the gate, Eteocles draws a lot to determine the defender. Not only does Herrmann’s conjecture solve the problem of the tenses (he can draw the lot and easily switch between tenses), it also adds dramatic vitality to the action.

[3] On why the ancients failed to develop a theory of probability, see Kidd 1-25. Kidd argues convincingly that probability theory failed to develop because ancient games of chance involved communal probabilities: probability theory does not grant the ancient gambler any advantage. Only when games of chance individualized risk did the first mathematician-gamblers begin exploring probability in earnest.

[4] On Hermes as the god of lots, see Apollodorus 3.10.2 and Aristophanes, Peace 364-6.

[5] Scholes and Merton received their Nobel Prizes as their hedge fund, Long-Term Capital Management, began its collapse. Its fall triggered one of the largest financial meltdowns of the modern era. See Lowenstein 96-120.


This is one in a series of risk theatre readings. Others are available: MacbethOthello, and All My Sons. Thanks for reading.

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

A Risk Theatre Reading of Arthur Miller’s ALL MY SONS

I don’t know why it is, but every time I reach out for something I want, I have to pull back because other people will suffer. (16)[1]

In the mid-1940s, the American century was dawning. The daybreak of Pax Americana had arrived. From January to November 1947, All My Sons ran for 328 performances.[2] Arthur Miller went from being a famous person nobody knew, to being a famous person everybody knew. In dramatizing the possibilities and problems of an upstart world order, Miller became an overnight sensation.

Pax Americana brought peace to the conquered by releasing the animal spirits of the economy, long bottled up in wartime rationing and a decade of depression and dust bowl. No more gloom. Opportunity and prosperity lay on every horizon line. Amidst the go-fever of a new superpower firing on all cylinders, one voice dissented. It was the voice of Miller asking whether the American dream was a zero-sum game.

In All My Sons, money is the measure of success. Money is everywhere. It represents the American dream. The choice to make money, however, comes at a cost. When one chooses to make money, one loses the next best alternative that one could have pursued, had one chosen otherwise. The negative part of choice is known as opportunity cost. Opportunity cost illustrates the cost of choice because it presents choice as an either/or rather than a both/and proposition.

All My Sons dramatizes the cost of the American dream, its entry fee, the yearly dues, and the ongoing expenses. It does so by following characters as they make choices in pursuit of the dream. By making, through opportunity cost, the characters pay for their decisions, Miller exposes the true price of Pax Americana.

The minor characters understand opportunity cost. Having chosen, they reflect on the forsaken alternatives, and are left with “a wisp of sadness” (6). Their tragedy anticipates, augments, and amplifies the tragedy of the Keller family—Joe Keller, or simply Keller, Kate Keller, otherwise known as Mother, and Chris Keller. The Kellers fail to understand opportunity cost. They are the sort of people who think that they can have their cake and eat it too. In the end, however, Miller destroys them. In their destruction, they pay for their devotion to the ideals of the American century.

For the orthodox interpreters who consider that the fall of heroes through hubris brings about a catharsis of pity and fear through pity and fear, or, that the tragic arises when irreconcilable ethical positions collide, All My Sons could take a position of pride alongside the tragedies of old. But, for the young guns who understand the opportunity cost concept, who seek farsighted interpretations for the new century, tragedy is, first and foremost, a valuing mechanism. To the rebel interpreters, patriotism goes through a price discovery process. It is on sale. Its price is measured in terms of the opportunity cost of all the things that are left behind in choosing it. The emotional effect of tragedy is wonder and awe. Wonder at how much Keller pays. And awe over how faraway, so close he was to pulling off a fast one. To the new interpreters, pity and fear were barbaric relics left over from past ages.

Show Me the Money

The Second World War is over. America has won. In the postwar boom, new industries, professions, and opportunities rise up:

Keller [shakes his head]. All the kind of business goin’ on. In my day, either you were a lawyer, or a doctor, or you worked in a shop. Now…

Frank. Well, I was going to be a forester once.

Keller. Well, that shows you; in my day, there was no such thing. (7)

It is a time of rapid urbanization and rising social mobility. The young move to the new metropolises of Cleveland and New York to stake their claims. On stage right, the baby boom that will redefine demographics and drive demand for the next century is taking place: in the space of three years, Frank and Lydia Lubey have three babies. In the postwar boom, the business of America is business. To partake in this world of business, money is the currency of exchange, the symbol of the dream, the projection of Pax Americana.

In All My Sons, money is ubiquitous. Money seals the deal between men and women: “Oh Annie, Annie,” says Chris to his fiancée, “I’m going to make a fortune for you!” (36). “You wanted money,” says Keller to Mother, “so I made money” (76). Money is the sign of social approval. “He’s got money,” says Sue to Ann when she finds out Ann is engaged to Chris (44). Money makes all the difference. When she met Jim, her future husband, his wallet was threadbare. She was, however, already a nurse. Money laid the groundwork for future strife:

Sue. It makes all the difference. I married an interne. On my salary. And that was bad, because as soon as a woman supports a man he owes her something. You can never owe somebody without resenting them. (44)

Money is how fathers demonstrate their love to sons. “What the hell did I work for?” Keller asks his son Chris. “That’s only for you, Chris,” says Keller, referring to his factory where everything from aircraft cylinder heads to pressure cookers and washing machines are built, “the whole shootin’-match is for you!” (17).

In the postwar boom, money is the new measure. Net worth is the measure of an individual and gross domestic product the measure of a nation. How much has one contributed to society? The answer lies in the bankbook. The bigger the better. Public projections of the bankbook start with the family house. In the opening description of the set, Miller describes the monetary attributes of the Keller house alongside its physical attributes: it is a two-storey, seven-room structure hedged in with tall poplars and a porch that extends into the yard six feet. To build it cost fifteen thousand (5). Like the height of the poplars and the porch that extends six feet, money has a dimension. It is measured in dollar units. In addition to the family house, secondary projections of the bankbook include the new cars and fridges (36). To own a house with a driveway, a new car, and fridge is the sign of a made man.

To comport oneself to life in the new dream, one must understand how money works. Besides the obvious material applications, money can buy human, all-too-human values. It can buy allegiances. Keller finds out that, not only has Ann returned after a three-and-a-half-year absence, her brother George is also on the way, and unexpectedly. George could be a danger: Keller had ruined his father. To win his allegiance, he proposes to fast-track George on the road to riches. George, having just joined the bar, is a new lawyer. He is in the beginning stages of building a clientele. Keller can help:

Keller. You say he’s not well. George, I been thinkin’, why should he knock himself out in New York with that cut-throat competition, when I got so many friends here; I’m very friendly with some big lawyers in town. I could set George up here. (48)

The allure of money may entice even Steve Deever, Ann and George’s father, the man Keller ruined:

Keller. I like you and George to go to him in prison and tell him. … “Dad, Joe wants to bring you into the business when you get out.”

Ann [surprised, even shocked]. You’d have him as partner?

Keller. No, no partner. A good job. [Pause. He sees she is shocked, a little mystified. He gets up, speaks more nervously.] I want him to know, Annie … while he’s sitting there I want him to know that when he gets out he’s got a place waitin’ for him. It’ll take his bitterness away. To know you have a place … it sweetens you. (49)

Relationships are defined by money, and Keller has figured out how to create winning relationships.

A fundamental relationship is the one between husband and wife. Here too, the successful relationship is grounded on an understanding of money. Jim, learning that Ann is engaged, offers monetary advice:

Jim [To Ann]. I’ve only met you Ann, but if I may offer you a piece of advice—When you marry, never—even in your mind—never count your husband’s money. (25)

Those who understand the advantages of money in the postwar world are lauded and those who fail to understand censored. Money is the basis of a new morality:

Keller. Goddam, if Larry was alive he wouldn’t act like this. He understood the way the world is made. He listened to me. To him the world had a forty-foot front, it ended at the building line. This one, everything bothers him. You make a deal, overcharge two cents, and his hair falls out. He don’t understand money. Too easy, it came too easy. Yes sir. Larry. That was a boy we lost. (77)

The goal of this new morality is to have children and pay off the mortgage. “That big dope next door,” says Mother, “who never reads anything but Andy Gump has three children and his house paid off” (61). Social causes, politics, and standing up for one’s beliefs are impediments, unwanted distractions to the patriotic goal of making money and babies:

Mother [reading his thoughts]. She got pretty, heh?

George [sadly]. Very pretty.

Mother [as a reprimand]. She’s beautiful, you damned fool!

George [looks around longingly; and softly, with a catch in his throat]. She makes it seem so nice around here.

Mother [shaking her finger at him]. Look what happened to you because you wouldn’t listen to me! I told you to marry that girl and stay out of the war!

George [laughs at himself]. She used to laugh too much.

Mother. And you didn’t laugh enough. While you were getting mad about Fascism Frank was getting into her bed. (61)

Against the monetization of all values is a competing ideal. But it lies offshore on the distant fronts. Chris saw a fleeting glimpse while he commanded a company in the war:

Chris. Everything was being destroyed, see, but it seemed to me that one new thing was made. A kind of … responsibility. Man for man. You understand me?—To show that, to bring that on to the earth again like some kind of monument and everyone would feel it standing there, behind him, and it would make a difference to him. (36)

But, as Chris adds, back at home there was no place for the things that come “out of a love a man can have for a man” (36). Before his company could come back from the war, they were already all dead. They had not been selfish enough. When, on the distant fronts, the dream of the brotherhood of man died, the American dream lost its last adversary.

The American dream is the dream of prosperity. It is the dream that tames the proud. It channels the grief of the widows and orphans, the frustrations of the veterans, and the energy of the emerging nation to create the wealth of nations. It is transacted in greenback dollars. It recorded its successes privately in bankbooks and publicly in the proliferation of factories, stone houses, automobiles, refrigerators. It sees material abundance as its highest good, and, in doing so, eschews brotherhood, the “love a man can have for a man.” Instead, it elevates self-interest as its new good.

Self-interest became the new creed because it creates prosperity. So argues the Scottish economist and philosopher Adam Smith. “It is not,” says Smith, “from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”[3] In Smith’s economic philosophy, the formula to maximize national prosperity in the aggregate is for each individual to maximize individual prosperity. The greater good of a unit is dependent on all the butchers, brewers, and bakers thinking about themselves first. When individuals put others’ interests before their own, frictional losses diminish the aggregate potential of the unit. So the air mask procedure on an airplane: individuals maximize the group’s welfare by putting on their own masks first. So the zipper merge in traffic: when two lanes coalesce into one, the whole queue moves faster if each driver, in an act of self-interest, advances to the head before merging. In crucial applications, self-interest draws a line between life and death:

Chris. You remember, overseas, I was in command of a company?

Ann. Yeah, sure.

Chris. Well, I lost them.

Ann. How many?

Chris. Just about all.

Ann. Oh, gee!

Chris. It takes a little time to toss that off. Because they weren’t just men. For instance, one time it’d been raining several days and this kid came up to me, and gave me his last pair of dry socks. Put them in my pocket. That’s only a little thing … but … that’s the kind of guys I had. They didn’t die; they killed themselves for each other. I mean that exactly; a little more selfish and they’d’ve been here today. (35)

While Chris’ company died because they put self-interest second, Keller takes the opposite approach. He champions self-interest. While others wind one another up like tinker toys, Keller gets ahead by considering his own interests. When, for example, Ann expresses her appreciation to Keller for offering to help set George on his feet, Keller corrects her:

Ann. That’s awfully nice of you Joe.

Keller. No, kid, it ain’t nice of me. I want you to understand me. I’m thinking of Chris. [Slight pause] See … this is what I mean. You get older, you want to feel that you … accomplished something. My only accomplishment is my son. I ain’t brainy. That’s all I accomplished. Now a year, eighteen months, your father’ll be a free man. Who is he going to come home to, Annie? His baby. You. He’ll come, old, mad, into your house.

Ann. That can’t matter any more, Joe.

Keller. I don’t want that hate to come between us. [Gestures between chris and himself] (48-9)

Keller thinks of his self-interest first and foremost. He is the ideal citizen, the new model patriot showing the others how to live the dream. Or is he? That is the question Miller considers.

The Opportunity Cost of Choice

Opportunity cost is the notion that choice involves a negative component. The negative component is that, when the best alternative is chosen, the next best alternative is forsaken. Choice is decision and, embedded in the etymology of the term decision, is the opportunity cost concept. The English term comes from the Latin verb decidere, itself a combination of the prefix de– in its privative sense of “removal” and the verb caedere “to cut.”[4]When one decides one literally “cuts off” or “cuts away” the flotsam of competing alternatives.

Economists, in examining the problem of scarcity, have formulated the clearest exposition of the opportunity cost concept. Economics is called the dismal science because it sees an impoverished world, a world where there are too many mouths, and too little to eat. There are too many sick, and too few cures. There are too many kings, and too few crowns. The task of economists is to manage resources that are in a perpetual short supply. To do this, they developed opportunity cost as the basis of an economic theory of choice to allocate inadequate resources.

Smith proposes opportunity cost as a basis for decision making in his 1776 treatise The Wealth of Nations. To find the underlying framework for decision making, he peels away the complexities of developed economies by reconstructing the primitive economy of early hunter-gatherers. Exchange, he finds, is informed by the opportunity cost of production. He illustrates the concept by the example of the one beaver and the two deer:

In that early and rude state of society which precedes both the accumulation of stock and the appropriation of land, the proportion between the quantities of labour necessary for acquiring different objects seems to be the only circumstance which can afford any rule for exchanging them for one another. If among a nation of hunters, for example, it usually costs twice the labour to kill a beaver which it does to kill a deer, one beaver should naturally exchange for or be worth two deer. It is natural that what is usually the produce of two days’ or two hours’ labour, should be worth double of what is usually the produce of one day’s or one hour’s labour. (1.6.1)

When a hunter prepares a beaver, the hunter has lost the opportunity to prepare two deer. The opportunity cost of preparing a beaver is the loss of two deer. Conversely, should the hunter prepare two deer, the hunter loses the opportunity to prepare one beaver. With this simple example where there is one input (labour) and two outputs (beaver and deer), cost enters into the theory of choice: with a given input, it is either one beaver or two deer. In the real world, the inputs are more, the outputs are more, and the costs more grievous than animal skins. But the results are the same: you cannot have your cake, and eat it too.

If economics is the dismal science, then tragedy is the dismal art. Tragedy, like economics, sees a world of privation where, to gain x, one gives up y. In All My Sons, the characters confront opportunity cost. Take Ann. In the prehistory of the play, she had been engaged to Larry Keller, an army pilot. He died in the war. At the same time, her father, Steve, and Larry’s father, Keller, were tried for selling cracked airplane cylinder heads to the Army Air Force. They were accused of welding over hairline fractures and passing off the heads as good. Twenty-one pilots died. Keller was exonerated. Steve, however, was convicted. Ann is incredulous that her father should have been so base:

Keller. Annie, the day the news came about Larry he was in the cell next to mine … Dad. And he cried, Annie … he cried half the night.

Ann. [touched]. He shoulda cried all night. (33)

She disowns him:

Keller [to Ann]. The next time you write Dad …

Ann. I don’t write him.

Keller [struck]. Well every now and again you …

Ann. [a little ashamed, but determined]. No, I’ve never written to him. Neither has my brother. (31)

Her indignation comes at a cost, the cost of her shame. Her awkward interaction with Frank, who enquires about her father, highlights the price she pays. She cannot answer his simple question: she has no idea how he is (28-9). Polite society questions one who has disowned one’s own. She buys her indignation at the cost of her shame.

Economists use opportunity cost to price out goods and services. In the primitive economy, the cost of a beaver is two deer because two deer represent the opportunity cost of one beaver. In the developed economy, the cost of a house call is ten dollars because it compensates Jim for the next best thing he could have done, had he passed on the house call, which, in a moment of levity, would have been to drive Sue to the beach. While economists use opportunity cost to price out goods and services, Miller uses opportunity cost to price out the human. In the mad money world of All My Sons, it is either your money or your life.

From the perspective of opportunity cost, the case of Jim is illuminating. He is an early prototype of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, a play which would come out two years later. Willy, after getting lost in the dream, exposes the brutal paradox of opportunity cost in complex economies. In a brutal insight as he chats about life insurance with Charley, Willy realizes that it is his money or his life:

Charley.  I’ve got some work to do. Take care of yourself. And pay your insurance.

Willy. Funny, y’know? After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.[5]

Willy can have the dream, but at the cost of his life. Jim is not there yet, but he is getting there. In All My Sons, Jim wants to be a good husband. He also wants to follow his calling. He discovers that his wants present him with an either/or proposition:

Jim. One year I simply took off, went to New Orleans; for two months I lived on bananas and milk, and studied a certain disease. It was beautiful. And then she came, and she cried. And I went back home with her. And now I live in the usual darkness; I can’t find myself; it’s even hard sometimes to remember the kind of man I wanted to be. I am a good husband. (74-5)

When Jim reflects on his choice, he realizes the value of all he left behind. In this way, Miller makes opportunity cost the dramatic pivot through which characters pay the price.

Miller specifies the price Jim pays. From Sue, we learn that medical researchers make twenty-five dollars a week and doctors ten dollars per house call (10 and 44). During the course of the play (which takes place on a Sunday), Jim calls on at least three patients—Mrs. Adams, Mr. Hubbard, and an unnamed patient with a headache. He has made, at minimum, thirty dollars. In one day, Jim makes more than he would have in a week as a researcher. At this rate, he could make $210 a week, over eight times the amount of a researcher.

From an opportunity cost perspective, an inference may be drawn: $185 dollars per week—the difference in pay between a researcher and a doctor—is the remuneration Jim receives each week for having given up his dreams. Put another way, $185 per week is the price he pays to be a good husband. To add insult to injury, it appears that his services as a doctor are superfluous. His patients—who think they are dying—are, in fact, well. “Money,” says Jim in a moment of resignation, “Money-money-money-money. You say it long enough it doesn’t mean anything” (73). In complex economies, it is no longer the opportunity costs of beavers and deer, but rather those of dollars, cents, and dreams.

Jim’s domestic tragedy sets the scene for Keller’s tragedy. One evening during the war, Steve—Keller’s erstwhile partner—rang, frantic. They were manufacturing aircraft cylinder heads. There was a fault in the process. A batch came out with a hairline fracture. To Keller, it was either his business or his integrity. He has a choice: disclose that the process is faulty or weld the fracture. The former could put them out of business. The latter could endanger lives. He instructs Steve to pull out his tools.

The next morning, Keller calls in sick. But he does not have the flu. He is sick with the enormity of his decision. He is worried. When worried, he sleeps (41). By the time he returns to work, the heads have shipped. He thinks that the army quality control will catch the defect. By that time, he will have corrected the process. Before he can blink, however, 121 heads have gone in and 21 Curtiss P-40 Warhawks have crashed. The defect is traced back to the shop. Keller and Steve are arrested.

If Keller is convicted, he will lose his business. If he is exonerated, he will save his business. In his mind, he has done wrong by instructing Steve to cover up the cracks. But he knows a loophole: the evidence of telephone conversations is inadmissible in court:

George. Dad was afraid. He wanted Joe there if he was going to do it. But Joe can’t come down … he’s sick. Sick! He suddenly gets the flu! Suddenly! But he promised to take responsibility. Do you understand what I’m saying? On the telephone, you can’t have responsibility! In a court you can always deny a phone call and that’s exactly what he did. They knew he was a liar the first time, but in the appeal they believed that rotten lie and now Joe is a big shot and your father is the patsy. (54-5)

Keller is confronted with a choice. The opportunity cost of his business is forsaking the next best alternative, the ties that bind him to his neighbour and business partner. For the sake of his sons, he chooses the business.

Whereas Ann and Jim make their choices and pay, Keller thinks that he can have both his money and his integrity. He believes that, without repercussions, he can ship out the heads. He believes, that, without repercussions, he can make Steve the fall guy. For some time, he succeeds. After his exoneration, he comes back into town the cock of the walk, with the result that “fourteen months later I had one of the best shops in the state again, a respected man again; bigger than ever” (30). He brags of his bravado to Ann: “Every Saturday night the whole gang is playin’ poker in this arbor. All the ones who yelled murderer takin’ my money now” (30).

In the world of tragedy, it is a crime against the natural law of opportunity cost to have your cake and eat it too. There may be free lunches in comedy, a world of abundance.[6] But this is no comedy Keller is in. He is in a tragedy, the dismal art regulated by the dismal science. In the ancient world, the gods would ensure that the price is paid. In the modern world, the new gods are the forces of economic science. Opportunity cost is the avenging god. With bravado, Joe “McGuts” Keller can delay nemesis, but, like the tragedies of old, only for so long.

Masters of Reality

The Kellers are the masters of reality, manipulating reality to avoid paying their existential dues. Each of the Kellers—Mother, Chris, and Keller—pursues a complementary strategy that, while cunning, falls short. Opportunity cost is there lurking, biding its time, like the neighbourhood kids:

Keller [laughs]. I got all the kids crazy!

Chris. One of these days they’ll all come in here and beat your brains out. (13-4)

Mother knows the truth, knows that Keller ordered Steve to ship the cracked heads, knows that Keller framed Steve. She knows that, for his choices, there is a price to be paid. Three years ago, her son Larry flew on a mission. He never returned. Even though he never flew a P-40—the airframe into which the heads were mounted—in her calculus, if Larry were dead, Keller is the murderer. But no. God is on her side. God would not allow it. “God does not,” she says, “let a son be killed by his father” (68). God will lift the burden of opportunity cost from her.

If God exists, Larry will return. That is a mother’s faith. Until his homecoming, she devises alternate means to sustain her faith. Her neighbour, Frank, is an astrologer. In astrology, there is a prodigy known as a “favorable day.” On one’s favorable day, death looks away. “The odds are a million to one,” says Frank, “that a man won’t die on his favorable day” (66). Larry had went down on November 25th. To find out if November 25th was Larry’s day, Mother has Frank cast his horoscope. It turns out that it was his day. The chances are 999,999:1 that he is alive. The apple tree further validates her. The morning of the play, it was blasted down by the wind. It was blasted down because it was an abomination. Memorials are for the dead.

But Mother only buys time. She is fooled by randomness, confusing the static in the starways and the blasts of wind for a signal. God is not on her side. The universe feels no sense of obligation. In a show of dramatic irony, it is her insistence that Larry is alive that forces Ann to produce Larry’s suicide note. It is this note that undoes the Kellers’ mastery of reality.

Chris, unlike Mother, does not know the truth, does not know Keller ordered Steve to ship the heads, does not know Keller framed Steve. He is a dreamer, has not reached the jaded age. He weighs reality in the scales of his inexperience. In his inexperience, the only measure he knows is that of the responsibility of “man for man,” and so he judges all hearts (36). Into his heart will not enter that Jim could choose a bigger bankbook over being a better benefactor to humanity. Into his heart will not enter that Keller could choose the business over his responsibility to fellow human beings.

With his depth of conviction, Chris is persuasive. Every few years, he tells Jim he would be happier helping the sick by being an underpaid researcher rather than an overrated doctor. His persuasiveness alarms Sue, who, worrying about the size of Jim’s bankbook, asks Ann to move away with Chris (44). His persuasiveness also convinces George to disown his own father:

Chris [sits facing George]. Tell me, George. What happened? The court record was good enough for you all these years, why isn’t it good now? Why did you believe it all these years?

George [after a slight pause]. Because you believed it … That’s the truth, Chris. I believed everything, because I thought you did.

His conviction casts a reality distortion field. Keller cannot be guilty because he is the best of fathers. If he were guilty, the court would have determined so. But he is fooled by his goodness. The depth of his conviction never penetrated below the surface simplicity of his inexperience.

Now Keller: not only does he know the truth, he has fabricated the truth. He is the interior dramatist. If the neighbourhood kids have heard disturbing rumours, he will create a spin:

Keller. Actually what happened was that when I got home from the penitentiary, the kids got very interested in me. You know kids. I was [Laughs] like the expert on the jail situation. And as time passed they got it confused and … I ended up a detective [Laughs.]

Mother. Except that they didn’t get it confused. [To ann] He hands out badges from the Post Toasties boxes. [They laugh.] (29)

What federal penitentiary? Nothing is amiss. He manipulates reality: he is a detective, the cellar his jail.

So too, when George questions Keller’s innocence, Keller distorts reality. He reiterates how Steve was a small man who “never learned how to take the blame” and reinforces his position with a litany of examples (63). There was the time Steve almost burned down the shop and blamed the mechanic. There was the time Steve lost money on an oil stock and blamed Frank (64). There is a pattern here, argues Keller: Steve did wrong in shipping the heads and, because he was a small man, blamed Keller. Though Keller can win over some of the people most of the time, he cannot win over the iron law of opportunity cost.

Opportunity cost rears up in the explosive conclusion to act two when the Kellers’ contrasting realities collide. Chris finally tells Mother that, come hell or high water, he will marry Ann, Larry’s fiancée. Mother, however, cannot accept Larry’s death. Cornered, she says things to Chris it were better not to say:

Mother. Your brother’s alive, darling, because if he’s dead, your father killed him. Do you understand me now? As long as you live, that boy is alive. God does not let a son be killed by his father. Now you see, don’t you? (68)

She draws her line in the sand. If she loses hope, she will kill herself (22). Her last ditch gambit, however, comes at a tremendous cost. She preserves her hope by admitting, in so many words, that Keller has been guilty all along.

After her burst, she exits, leaving Chris to confront Keller. Keller confesses. He was responsible for the heads. He knew lives were at risk. But he did it for Chris, did it to save the business. Chris rebukes him and, having surfeited his rage, exits in despair.

Keller and Mother regroup. She suggests that it is time for him to pay. Between the horoscopes and revisionist narratives, the past is catching up:

Mother. I think if you sit him down and you … explain yourself. I mean you ought to make it clear to him that you know you did a terrible thing. [Not looking into his eyes] I mean if he saw that you realize what you did. You see?

Keller. What ice does that cut?

Mother [a little forcefully]. I mean if you told him that you want to pay for what you did.

Keller [sensing … quietly]. How can I pay?

Mother. Tell him … you’re willing to go to prison. [Pause.] (76)

Keller will have none of it. Chris will forgive him. “I’m his father and he’s my son,” he says, “and if there’s something bigger than that I’ll put a bullet in my head” (77). Family will lift the burden of opportunity cost from him.

As Mother draws her line in the sand, Ann will not stand by idle. She has come 700 miles to marry Chris. She will prove to Mother that Larry is dead. She has a letter, a letter from Larry, his suicide letter. It is the atom bomb of letters. In it, Larry tells Ann not to wait. Larry has heard Keller and Steve have been charged. “Every day three or four men never come back,” he says, “and he sits back there doing business.” “I could kill him,” writes Larry (83). But instead of killing Keller, he kills himself, flying into the void.

After Chris reads the letter to Keller, Keller realizes the game is up. Keller had been put out when he was ten years old. He had lived through the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. To ensure his sons would have an easier life, he has avoided paying his opportunity costs. He avoided the cost by framing Steve, by perjuring himself, and by distorting reality. He tried to get around the cost by making money, passing the business on to Chris, helping George set up, and welcoming Steve back into the business. He came so close to having his cake, and eating it too.

When it started unravelling, Keller could still count on the support of his good son, his dead son, the younger, perfecter son who understood the cost of a buck. But the letter strips him of his final hope. After he reads the letter, Mother, with a dark premonition, cuts in:

Mother. Larry was your son too, wasn’t he? You know he’d never tell you to do this.

Keller [looking at letter in his hand]. Then what is this if it isn’t telling me? Sure, he was my son. But I think to him they were all my sons. And I guess they were, I guess they were. (83)

The letter brings the masters of reality back down to earth. The Kellers thought they could dream the dream, and live it too. But they could only delay the day of reckoning. Mother loses her religion. Her faith that Larry would return was bought at the cost of God and the stars. For her, the stars will forevermore wander random pathways, silent, dumb. Chris, on the other hand, buys experience at the cost of his worldview where the money is clean, the courts are just, and the fathers are like Jesus. Then, there is Keller. He buys a better future for his family at the cost of his integrity. In the dog-eat-dog world of tragedy, it is either responsibility to family or responsibility to humanity, but not both. The Kellers were only mortal gods, building houses of cards.

The Dismal Art

Tragedy, like economics, is a dismal art. Tragedy is an economics of the final resort that examines the opportunity cost of being alive. While participants in hunters’ markets, farmers’ markets, and stock markets come together to value beavers and deer, fruits and vegetables, and stocks and bonds by the opportunity cost concept of one beaver for two deer, patriots come together on the marketplace of the tragic stage to value their devotion to the new ideals of Pax Americana. Economists price goods. Dramatists price dreams. To define the price, both identify what is given up in exchange.

To price out intangible assets, one turns to tragedy because tragedy is a valuing mechanism for human assets. Economists can tell you a gallon of milk is worth $4.99, but not how much the milk of human kindness costs.[7] To find out how much the milk of human kindness is worth, one turns to tragedy. In a world of privation, where the shortfalls are perpetual, there are no free lunches, only opportunity costs. Because of the opportunity cost mechanism, tragedy establishes the price of the all-too-human as the next best alternative that is given up in exchange.

The function of drama as a valuing mechanism is unique to tragedy. Miller could not, for example, have priced out the cost of the dream if he had set the action in a comedy. Comedy is a world of plenty. There is no opportunity cost in comedy: it is a world of free lunches. Compare the father Micio in The Brothers, by Roman comedian Terence, to Keller:

Micio. He dines and wines and reeks of scent: I pay for it all. He keeps a mistress: I shall pay up as long as it suits me, and when it doesn’t, maybe she will shut his door on him. He has a broken door-lock; I’ll have it mended. He has torn someone’s clothes; they can be repaired. (344)[8]

Both Micio and Keller provide for their sons. In the world of comedy, the limit of Micio’s largesse is whether “it suits me.” Micio, flush with cash, effortlessly provides for his son. For Keller, however, to provide for his sons in the world of tragedy, he must feign illness, lie, perjure himself, put his reputation on the line, throw his neighbours to the wolves, and endanger the lives of others’ sons. The brutality of tragedy is what makes it a great valuing mechanism.

As a valuing mechanism, Miller uses it to explore the price patriots pay to live the American dream. What is the cost of being a good husband? To become a good husband, one gives up the dream of true research. What is the inverse cost, the cost of being a researcher? That cost works out to be the additional income of $185 per week that is lost when one gives up the general practice. What is the cost of a mother waiting for her son? Her other son picks up the tab. “We’re like at a railroad station,” says her other son, “waiting for a train that never comes in” (21). What is the cost of solidarity with fellow human beings? The cost of solidarity is life; the war kills those not greedy enough of their lives. What is the cost of standing up for justice? The cost is the ties that bind together families. What is the cost of saving an engagement? The cost is turning a blind eye to a father-in-law’s crimes. What is the cost of becoming practical? The cost of practical society life is to watch “the star of one’s honesty” go out (74). What is the cost of money? Money, in All My Sons, comes at the price of integrity. What is the cost of being a good father? The cost is your life, all your sons will spit you out.

In All My Sons, each time the subsidiary characters are confronted with several alternatives, they choose one, eliminate the others, and are left with a certain “wisp of sadness” (6). The wisp of sadness is the surface manifestation of the invisible hand of opportunity cost at work. Keller, however, wants it all, choosing—simultaneously—the best of every alternative. Every time the future proliferates and forks, he is there having his cake, and eating it too. But opportunity cost is an iron law. It will find a way through the sliding door of chance.

By the efficient mechanism of opportunity cost, Miller asks how much runaway patriotism costs. Uncle Sam had made it the patriotic duty of each American to make money. All My Sons, however, steps back and dramatizes how, behind every beautiful thing—the smiles and the “attaboys,” the long driveways and the mansions on the hill, the new fridges and the fast cars—lay some kind of pain. In dramatizing the cost so beautifully, it caught the imagination of a new generation of theatregoers and created, in the process, the uncreated conscience of American patriotism.

[1] Arthur Miller, All My Sons (New York: Penguin, 2000). Text references are to page numbers of this edition.

[2] Christopher Bigsby, introduction to All My Sons, by Arthur Miller (New York: Penguin, 2000), xxiv.

[3] Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations: Books I-III, ed. Andrew Skinner (London: Penguin, 1999), 1.2.2.

[4] Oxford Latin Dictionary, 1st ed., s.v. “decido.”

[5] Miller, Death of a Salesman, 50th anniversary ed. (New York: Penguin, 1999), 74.

[6] On comedy as a world of plenty, see Edwin Wong, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected (Victoria, Friesen Press, 2019), 234-6.

[7] On tragedy as a valuing mechanism, see Wong, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy, 79-110.

[8] Terence, The Brothers, in The Comedies, trans. Betty Radice (London: Penguin, 1976).

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Thanks for reading. This series of readings are based on my new theory of tragedy, called risk theatre. Risk theatre understands tragedy as a valuing mechanism, and makes risk, chance, and uncertainty the fulcrum of the dramatic action. Reviews of my book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy, are available here. Risk theatre is the basis for the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy, now in its third year. Other readings in this series include essays on MacbethOthello, and Seven Against ThebesWhen the world gives you risk, make risk theatre.

Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

A Risk Theatre Reading of Shakespeare’s MACBETH

The true star of Macbeth is the low-probability, high-consequence event. And the true story of Macbeth is the hero’s reaction to it. In this tragedy, a man is transformed by a series of low-probability, high-consequence events, in the beginning raised up by chance, and, in the end, cast down by the same power he hoped to harness. Macbeth is the story of how low-probability, high-consequence events encouraged a man to wager all-in, thinking that he was bound for glory, and of how the random element fooled him.

For the dreamers who believe that low-probability, high-consequence events could be tamed through progress, the play warns of evil’s allure and the follies of ambition and confidence. For others, whose powers of recognition are clearer, and who perceive the random element working at each existential juncture in life and in history, the hypotheses of other-worldly powers, ambition, and confidence were redundant. To them, Macbeth tells an all-too-human story of how, because of our innate predilection to scorn chance, having always satisfied our intellectual biases by seeking any other explanation than one which involved the random element, we thought ourselves lords of chance and became, instead, the fools of chance.

The definition of a low-probability, high-consequence event is one in which, before it happens, is considered improbable. Sometimes the possibility it can even happen cannot be imagined, such is its remoteness. Examples include the Gutenberg Press, the rise of the personal computer, or the Gunpowder Plot. We can know that a low-probability, high-consequence action has occurred by watching the reactions. Sometimes, it prompts the one who has seen it to alert others. “From the spring,” says the dying Captain, “whence comfort seemed to come / Discomfort swells: mark, King of Scotland, mark” (1.2.27-8). Other times it elicits disbelief. “Nothing is,” says Macbeth, “but what is not” (1.3.144). Sometimes, one takes one’s own life: this was the case of the “farmer that hanged / himself on th’expectation of plenty” (2.3.4-5). Having bet all-in on a bumper crop, when waylaid by the low-probability event, out of rent, out of food, and out of luck, he hangs himself. The danger these events present is that, though they were impossible to predict beforehand, after they happen, we retrospectively invent simplistic explanations of how they arose. In doing so, our sense of comfort is misguided, as we fail to give chance its due. This danger extends to the criticism of Macbeth.

In Macbeth, the action pivots around four low-probability, high-consequence events. The first is when, contrary to expectation, Macbeth becomes Thane of Cawdor. The second is when, against all hope, he becomes king. The third is when Birnam Wood, impossibly, comes to Dunsinane Hill. The last is when, beyond nature’s permutations, he meets a man not of woman born. That each of these events will happen is foreshadowed by the Witches—Shakespeare’s agents of improbability—to Macbeth, who, in turn, rejects each as being out of hand. By dramatizing the path from prediction to rejection to fulfillment, Shakespeare makes probability the play’s true theme: what happens when more things happen than what we thought would happen happens?

To most people, the Witches are not agents of improbability, but rather supernatural agents. Like the oracles of old in Greek tragedies, the Witches would prophecy to Macbeth his fate, fate being the antinomy of chance and probability. But, the funny thing is, to dramatize fate—to bring fate onto the stage—fate had to be cast into the play as a random event that takes place against all odds. That such an event could have taken place against overwhelming odds is then attributed back onto the powerful action of fate. The feeling of surprise that a miracle has occurred is the proof that fate exists. But really, there was no fate, only the fulfilment of a low-probability, high-consequence event that the audience appreciates to represent fate. Fate in tragedy is a literary artifact, is probability dressed up as fate. In this way, Macbeth, by exploring fate, became a venue to explore the impact of the highly improbable. Wherever there is fate, there is also chance: the way fate manifests itself in literature is by overcoming the random element. At last, fate and chance are synonymous, two sides of the same coin.

Macbeth begins with Scotland in alarm. The first crisis sees the rebel Macdonald leading Irish soldiers into Forres. King Duncan sends in Macbeth and Banquo. But, in the act of dispatching Macdonald, a second crisis strikes. Seeing Scotland convulsed by civil war, Sweno, Norway’s king, seizes the moment. He allies with another Scottish rebel, the Thane of Cawdor. With covert support from the thane and fresh Norwegian troops, they open a second front at Fife. Macbeth and Banquo remobilize to win the day. The opening action sets the scene for the first two of the four low-probability, high-consequence events.

After the battle, Macbeth and Banquo, on the road to Forres, encounter the Witches:

Macbeth. Speak, if you can: what are you?

1 Witch. All hail Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Glamis.

2 Witch. All hail Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor.

3 Witch. All hail Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter. (1.3.47-50)

The first Witch accosts Macbeth by name and title. This draws his attention: when his father died, he had become Thane of Glamis. The second Witch teases him with a present tense pronouncement, calling him Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth finds this both disturbing and unlikely. The news that Duncan has executed the traitor and given his title to Macbeth is still in transit. Then, the third Witch goes in hook, line, and sinker, hailing Macbeth as tomorrow’s king. Macbeth finds this impossible:

Macbeth. Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more.
By Finel’s death, I know I am Thane of Glamis,
But how of Cawdor? The Thane of Cawdor lives
A prosperous gentleman: and to be king
Stands not within the prospect of belief,
No more than to be Cawdor. Say from whence
You owe this strange intelligence, or why
Upon this blasted heath you stop our way
With such prophetic greeting? Speak, I charge you. (1.3.70-8)

The Witches vanish. At that moment, Angus and Ross enter. Acting as though the mouthpiece of chance, Ross hails Macbeth the Thane of Cawdor:

Angus. We are sent
To give thee from our royal master thanks,
Only to herald thee into his sight
Not pay thee.

Ross. And for an earnest of a greater honour,
He bade me, from him, call thee Thane of Cawdor:
In which addition, hail most worthy thane,
For it is thine.

Banquo. What, can the devil speak true?

Macbeth. The Thane of Cawdor lives. Why do you dress me
In borrowed robes?

Angus. Who was the Thane lives yet,
But under heavy judgement bears that life
Which he deserves to lose.
Whether he was combined with those of Norway,
Or did line the rebel with hidden help
And vantage, or that with both he laboured
In his country’s wrack, I know not,
But treasons capital, confessed and proved,
Have overthrown him. (1.3.101-118)

Macbeth’s surprise—“Why do you dress me in borrowed robes?”—relays to the audience the improbability of what is happening. Banquo too, stunned, says: “What, can devil speak true?” a little too loud.

As the true star of the show, not only do low-probability events change our perceptions of how many things there are in heaven and earth, they also change the plot’s trajectory. Macbeth, previously fighting traitors, turns traitor. With the low-probability event, Shakespeare boldly pivots the trajectory of the play. The imperial theme begins.

Shakespeare’s Swans

Part of the good interpreter’s task is to sound out yesterday’s iambs on today’s instruments. For yesterday’s plays to jingle and jangle to modern ears, new approaches are required, approaches which resonate with today’s preoccupations. Today, there is a preoccupation with low-probability, high-consequence events: 9/11, the Great Recession, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Deepwater Horizon, and other events give us reason to reflect on how nothing is impossible, once it happens. In the last decade, a new term has arisen to describe these events: today, we call them “black swans.”

The term “black swan” comes from Roman antiquity, and its journey to the present day has been itself swan buffeted. In the beginning, it meant something entirely different. The Roman poet Juvenal coined the term in the Satires where he likened a wife, perfect in all her virtues, to “a prodigy as rare upon the earth as a black swan (6.165).” Since it was believed that the perfect wife does not exist, the black swan became a byword for the impossible. This was the term’s first meaning.

In 1697, European explorers sighted black swans off the coast of Australia. With one sighting, the improbable overcame the probable and a belief system—that all swans are white—fell. As a result, the term was orphaned. In 1843, however, John Stuart Mill reinvented it. In A System of Logic, Mill transformed the term from an expression of impossibility (which it could no longer denote) into a visual representation of the power of the unexpected. In Mill, the black swan is the empiricists’ bogeyman. It symbolizes the philosophers’ horror of how one observation can wreck any number of inferences based on any number of observations made over any immemorial period of time. In philosophical circles, the black swan came to symbolize the danger of formulating general principles from particular observations, otherwise known as the problem of induction. Another swan event, however,  was required for the term to enter the public consciousness.

In 2007, mathematician, options trader, and philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb released The Black Swan. He argued that Wall Street’s risk management models, far from containing risk, exacerbated risk and endangered the financial system. Being rooted in the idea of past as prologue, these models gave traders false assurances that they could wager all-in: every swan will be white and events progress forwards, inexorably, quiescently, in a predictable steady state. But, if time were a punctuated equilibrium and arrived in fits and starts like ketchup out a glass bottle, full of revolution, a world of hurt awaits. Taking the cue from Mill, Taleb called these unforeseen, unexpected, and catastrophic events black swans. Mainstream financial pundits, busy riding the boom, disregarded Taleb, whom they regarded as an eccentric voice crying out in the wilderness. But, without warning, the Great Recession broke out in 2008 to break each one of the world’s oldest and most decorated financial institutions. The timing of Taleb’s book—having come out the previous year— seemed prescient.

Though experts disavowed that such a catastrophe could be ascribed to as fleeting a notion as chance, Taleb’s ideas were backed by a badass image (a sinister swan) and hardcore math (attacking the venerable bell curve). When the media suggested that the Great Recession could be understood as a swan event, a low-probability, high-consequence event precipitated by, of all things, chance, a firestorm of controversy ensued. It was at this time that the term “black swan” to denote the impact of the highly improbable entered the popular consciousness.

Before there was Taleb, there was Shakespeare. Only Macbeth was not taken as a warning of the highly improbable, but rather, a warning of the dangers of confidence, ambition, and evil. Perhaps that was because people did not associate Shakespeare with probability theory, which, having been recently founded in the sixteenth century, was still in its infancy. Shakespeare, however, grasped with his playwright’s intuition the inordinate impact the highly improbable. Consider his use of the improbable elsewhere to generate fantastic outcomes: Desdemona, in Othello, dropping the handkerchief, spotted with strawberries or the letter-carrier, in Romeo and Juliet, being caught in the wrong house at the wrong time. Hamlet’s injunction to Horatio—“There are more things in heaven and earth, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”—also warns of the impact of the highly improbable (Hamlet 1.5.167-8). Shakespeare’s tragedies are full of curious improbabilities and now, when they are all the rage, is the time to talk about Shakespeare’s swans.

The Imperial Theme

Shakespeare’s understanding of the highly improbable and its dramatic applications can be illustrated through Macbeth’s interaction with Angus and Ross. Macbeth’s question: “Why do you dress me / In borrowed robes?” is spoken from the viewpoint of his initial reality. In this reality, Duncan is his cousin and king. He will lay his life on the line fighting foreign kings and native rebels to defend this reality. In this reality, all swans are white. But the moment Angus and Ross confirm the second Witch’s pronouncement, Macbeth sights the black swan. A new reality opens, one in which he is king. It is the improbable that draws him to the existential fulcrum. In this reality, having seen the swan, he knows the impossible is possible. The plot pivots into the imperial theme.

Finding himself, unexpectedly, Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth muses: “Glamis and Thane of Cawdor: / The greatest is behind” (1.3.118-9). The greatest that lies behind is to be king. Not only have the Witches prophesied thus, Ross, in his fruitfully ambiguous phrase that the new thaneship is “an earnest of greater honour,” intimates that Macbeth could be named heir apparent, a declaration consonant with the system of tanistry used in medieval Scotland where the crown, not yet bound by primogeniture, would revolve between collateral branches of the leading families.

Why would the greatest lie behind? We perceive the past, not the future, as that which lies behind. “Leave the past behind,” we say. We perceive the future as that which lies ahead. “Look to the future,” we say. The future is something we see approaching. Our expressions reflect our biases. Since we fear uncertainty, we disarm it by putting it in plain view. To highlight the role of the unexpected, Shakespeare turns convention on its head by placing the future behind, rather than before Macbeth. The future now steals up to Macbeth with the result that, when it catches him, it takes him by surprise. The image highlights the elusiveness of chance: not only does it lie in the future, sometimes we cannot even see it coming.

The improbable event has so unseated Macbeth that he allows himself to consider murder. But the thought of murder is so abhorrent to his previous beliefs that his hair stands on end and his heart knocks against his chest (1.3.137-44). His last recourse to preserve his previous reality is, ironically, to trust chance: “If chance will have me king, why chance may crown me, / Without my stir” (1.3.146.7). As soon as he considers it, however, Duncan names his son heir. Crushed by having the prospect of the crown presented and ripped away, Macbeth moves further towards murder with his “Stars, hide your fires” soliloquy (1.4.50). Within a day, Duncan will be dead, clearing the path for Macbeth to be invested at Scone. The imperial theme is complete.

The Engine of Suspense

After the first two swan events take place, two remain: Birnam Wood and the man not of woman born. When Macbeth faces his first setbacks, he seeks a fresh start and goes back to where it all began. He will seek the Witches. All they presaged has come to pass. They said he is Thane of Cawdor, and it was confirmed. They said he will be king, and he became king. They said Fleance would found the Stuart line, and Fleance proved hard to kill.

To show Macbeth the path forward, the Witches conjure three Apparitions. The first Apparition tells Macbeth to beware Macduff. Even without the Apparition, Macbeth knew Macduff would be trouble: Macduff had declined to attend both the coronation and the state dinner. The second and third Apparitions prove more helpful, setting in motion the last two low-probability, high-consequence events:

2 Apparition. Be bloody, bold and resolute: laugh to scorn
The power of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth. Descends.

Macbeth. Then live, Macduff: what need I fear of thee?
But yet I’ll make assurance double sure,
And take a bond of fate: thou shalt not live,
That I may tell pale-hearted fear it lies
And sleep in spite of thunder. Thunder

[Enter] : a child crowned, with a tree in his hand.

What is this,
That rises like the issue of a king
And wears upon his baby-brow the round
And top of sovereignty?

All.                               Listen, but speak not to’t.

3 Apparition. Be lion-mettled, proud, and take no care
Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are.
Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until
Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill
Shall come against him. Descend[s].

Macbeth.                       That will never be.
Who can impress the forest, bid the tree
Unfix his earth-bound root? Sweet bodements, good.
Rebellious dead, rise never till the Wood
Of Birnam rise, and our high-placed Macbeth
Shall live the lease of nature, pay his breath
To time, and mortal custom. (4.1.78-99)

Like the prospects of becoming thane and king, Macbeth finds the likelihood of either eventuality so low as to approach nil. His courage swells with apodictic certainty:

Macbeth. Bring me no more reports, let them fly all;
Till Birnam Wood remove to Dunsinane,
I cannot taint with fear. What’s the boy Malcolm?
Was he not born of woman? (5.3.1-4)

Exactly as Hecate predicts, Macbeth, consumed by certainty, begins reciting the Apparitions’ words like a novel mantra:

Hecate. He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear
His hopes ’bove wisdom, grace and fear;
And you all know, security
Is mortals’ chiefest enemy. (3.5.30-4)

He repeats it to the Doctor: “I will not be afraid of death and bane,” he says, “Till Birnam forest come to Dunsinane” (5.3.59-60). “Thou wast born of woman,” he says, gloating over Young Siward’s corpse (5.7.12). He becomes another of chance’s fools.

In addition to all the functions mentioned earlier—driving the action forwards, exploding and reshaping worldviews, and pivoting the plot—black swan events also fire drama’s engine of suspense. They are part of a metatheatrical game played between dramatists and audiences.

A funny thing is that low-probability events, while low-probability to the characters (who are invariably blindsided by them), are, from the audience’s perspective, high-probability events. When the second Apparition tells Macbeth that “none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth,” Macbeth understands that, chances are, it will not happen. The audience, however, is of the opposing belief. They understand that a man not of woman born will certainly strike Macbeth down.

Similarly, when the third Apparition tells Macbeth that “until / Great Birnam Wood to Dunsinane Hill /Shall come against him,” Macbeth understand that, chances are, it will not happen. The audience, however, is of another belief. They understand that, like a Houdini or a David Copperfield—Shakespeare will wow them by pulling off the impossible in plain sight. The moment the Apparitions speak, the theatregoers start trying to figure out how Shakespeare will accomplish the impossible. On the one hand, the playwright telegraphs cues to the audience, and, on the other hand, the audience tries to figure out these cues. This metatheatrical game between playwrights and audiences is drama’s engine of suspense. With a few cues, the dramatist stokes the fires of a thousand imaginations.

When the Apparition tells Macbeth that he will never be vanquished until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill, Shakespeare is telegraphing to the theatregoers that it will happen. Since it is not immediately obvious how Shakespeare can accomplish this, the theatregoers try to figure it out. As they try to figure it out, they feel the thrill of suspense. “Am I on the right track?” thinks one. “This is how he will do it,” thinks another. In these thoughts is the magic of suspense, and its magic increases with improbability. To bring about a probable event only requires the skills of a probable dramatist. To bring about the improbable event requires the skills of a most improbable dramatist. In this way, when Macbeth responds to the Apparition by saying, incredulous: “That will never be,” the audience understands it two ways. On the one hand, Macbeth is saying that it cannot happen. On the other hand, it is Shakespeare saying to the audience through Macbeth: “If I pull this off, you will admit I am a dramatist of the most improbable skill.” And so, this game of suspense between dramatist and audience plays out.

As the endgame approaches, Malcolm closes on Inverness with the English forces to revenge his father. Shakespeare has a chance to locate the action. The English, being unfamiliar with the terrain, request a bearing:

Siward. What wood is this before us?

Menteith.                                  The Wood of Birnam.

Malcolm. Let every soldier hew him down a bough
And bear’t before him; thereby shall we shadow
The number of our host, and make discovery
Err in report of us. (5.4.4-7)

In the cat and mouse game of suspense, this is the moment the audience has been anticipating. Shakespeare satisfies the audience in the following scene where the Messenger arrives, breathless:

Macbeth. Thou com’st to use thy tongue: thy story, quickly.

Messenger. Gracious my lord,
I should report that which I say I saw,
But know not how to do’t.

Macbeth.                       Well, say, sir.

Messenger. As I did stand my watch upon the hill,
I looked toward Birnam, and anon methought
The wood began to move.

Macbeth.                       Liar and slave.

Messenger. Let me endure your wrath, if’t be not so.
Within this three mile may you see it coming.
I say, a moving grove. (5.5.28-37)

From two scenes earlier, they know that ten thousand march on Inverness. In any other play, the Messenger would have simply reported that troops approach under camouflage. In this play, however, Shakespeare plays up the improbability of the commonest of tactics to place the audience in check. He has brought Birnam Wood to Dunsinane Hill.

Though the improbable has, once again, happened, Shakespeare reminds the audience through Macbeth that their game is not done. The man not of woman born still lurks, undiscovered:

Macbeth. They have tied me to a stake; I cannot fly,
But bear-like I must fight the course. What’s he
That was not born of woman? Such a one
Am I to fear, or none. (5.7.11-14)

The probable, most of the time, prevails over the improbable. The improbable, however, has one decisive advantage. The probable can occur many times, and that is all that it can be: probable. The improbable, however, only needs to happen once. So it was with the black swan and so it is with Macbeth. As the end approaches, Macduff finds Macbeth:

Macduff.                      Turn, hell-hound, turn.

Macbeth. Of all men else I have avoided thee.
But get back, my soul is too much charged
With blood of thine already.

Macduff.                      I have no words.
My voice is in my sword, thou bloodier villain
Than terms can give thee out. Fight. Alarum.

Macbeth.                       Thou losest labour;
As easy mayst thou the intrenchant air
With thy keen sword impress, as make me bleed.
Let fall thy blade on vulnerable crests;
I bear a charmed life, which must not yield
To one of woman born.

Macduff.                      Despair thy charm,
And let the angel whom thou still hast served
Tell thee, Macduff was from his mother’s womb
Untimely ripped. (5.8.3-16)

Checkmate. The improbable man is the man born from caesarean section. The suspense, building since the second sabbath, resolves. The audience feels entertained, having seen how Shakespeare brings to pass the highly improbable, and many times.

Tragedy is a compact between dramatist and playwright. Its structure consists of a series of low-probability, high-consequence events, foreshadowed and fulfilled. Tragedy showcases the playwright’s ingenuity in bringing about the highly improbable. Minor feats of improbability for minor playwrights and major feats of improbability for major playwrights. Such a reading interests us, who are today most interested in finding new ways to explore the unexpected, as more and more, we see that in life as in tragedy, the more improbable it is, the harder it hits.

Not Intended Consequences, but Unintended Consequences

Tragedy dramatizes low-probability, high-consequence events to remind us how good actions can have bad consequences. Unintended consequences arise when the swan event happens because the world has been changed: though no one knows what to do, everyone must act quickly. When Sweno and the Thane of Cawdor see Macdonald revolting, they must act at once, risking all: there is a tide in the affairs of men. This all-in risk, in turn, further antagonizes the unintended consequences: the greater the risk, the further the risk taker’s resources are stretched beyond what the risk taker can cover. The risk taker stands naked in the rain. Actions made in the new world, made in haste and multiplied by risk, tend towards unintended consequences.

Macbeth’s quest for the crown is set against the backdrop of all the failed attempts on the crown. Macdonald and the Thane of Cawdor dared, and lost their lives. Sweno dared, and was out ten thousand dollars. The opening action establishes that, in the world of this play, the highest risk enterprise is to reach for the crown. Despite the risks, however, the play also establishes Macbeth’s competency to fulfil the task. He was the one who thwarted the ingrates and upstarts, who, by all accounts, had been within a hair’s breadth. If they had been close, Macbeth, who was by far greater than them, could entertain higher hopes. Duncan, an armchair king, hardly stands in his way. From the outset, to kill a king is, paradoxically, presented as both the riskiest and the most assured task: riskiest because the others had failed and most assured because Macbeth is like no other. The deed needs to be fraught with risk to cement Macbeth’s daring. But the deed also needs to be most assured so that when the unintended consequences occur, the audience is surprised. This is the pleasure of tragedy.

Having seen what happened to Macdonald and the Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth knows the risk of “Vaulting ambition, which o’er-leaps itself, / And falls on th’other” (1.7.27-8). In awe of risk, he changes his mind, telling Lady Macbeth they will go no further. “I dare do all that may become a man, he says, “Who dares do more is none” (1.7.38-9). Despite his ample resources and insider knowledge, Macbeth remains circumspect. He refuses to act unless every question mark is removed.

At this point, Lady Macbeth offers the failsafe of failsafes. In addition to the assurances they already possess, she proposes to frame Duncan’s chamberlains for the murder. She will ply them with wine so that they can access Duncan. Once murdered, she will smear them with royal blood and set their weapons—now the instruments of murder—next to them. Everyone will be in a deep sleep after the long day. When the murder is discovered, Macbeth will, in a fit of rage, murder the chamberlains. The truth will die with them. None will know. Her plan, being foolproof, convinces Macbeth. Every question mark disappears. “I am settled, “ he says, “and bend up / Each corporal agent to this terrible feat” (2.1.80-1).

They put the plan into action. As expected, it works perfectly. Macbeth become king. Duncan’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain flee, drawing suspicion of murder on themselves. No one knows better. The play shows them controlling, taming, and mitigating the foreseen risks. But then play turns to the unseen risks in the unintended consequences of their actions, cascading one after another in a beautiful sequence of mischance.

Macbeth had wanted to become king. But he cannot become the type of king he had expected. The best he can do is to become a tyrant, a degraded form of a king. This is the first of the unintended consequences. Now he begins consorting with murderers. Friends must die, and Fleance too. But when he marks them with death, further unintended consequences result. To be sure, ghosts can be found in Shakespeare’s other plays. In the world of this play, however, ghosts are like Juvenal’s black swans: they do not exist. Now, for the first time, the undead rise:

Macbeth. Blood hath been shed ere now, i’th’olden time,
Ere humane statute purged the gentle weal;
Ay, and since too, murders have been performed
Too terrible for the ear. The times have been
That when the brains were out, the man would die,
And there an end. But now they rise again
With twenty mortal murders on their crowns,
And push us from our stools. This is more strange
Than such a murder is. (3.4.73-81)

Macbeth, too, could not have foreseen how Lady Macbeth, entrenched within her iron will, would crack under pressure. Nor could he have foreseen that the moment he masters stoicism, hardening himself to all perils, is the moment Seyton breaks the news:

Macbeth. I have supped full of horrors;
Direness familiar to my slaughterous thoughts
Cannot once start me. Wherefore was that cry?

Seyton. The Queen, my lord, is dead. (5.5.13-6)

Lady Macbeth, too, generates unintended consequences. She had wanted to become queen. But she can only be a posthumous queen, a degraded form of queen: Seyton, as she dies, first addresses her thus.

How did Macbeth fall, Macbeth who removed every last question mark? Some say he fell because of overconfidence. If you believe he was overconfident, ask yourself if Shakespeare could have done any more than what he did to justify Macbeth’s confidence. He gave Macbeth the competence. He gave him insider knowledge. He gave him the best-laid plan. Why should Macbeth not have been confident? His confidence is grounded. He was confident, but did not fall as a result of confidence.

Others say Macbeth fell through uxoriousness. He should not have listened to Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth, however, had the foolproof plan. Her plan is shown to be successful. The suspicion of the murder falls on Malcolm and Donalbain. He was swayed by Lady Macbeth, but did not fall through uxoriousness.

Then, there are those who say he fell because of his ambition. The world of the play, however, encourages ambition. The throne is ready for a shaking. Macdonald, the Thane of Cawdor, and Sweno all sense a changing of the guard. Later Banquo—and perhaps Donalbain—entertain their own imperial themes. The king is a poor judge of character, easily deceived, and cannot take it to the field. God had already deserted him: he can only send his wounded to the surgeons, other kings heal their subjects by a divine touch. Macbeth was ambitious, but his ambition was justified.

If not confidence, uxoriousness, or ambition, why did he fall? I think he fell through chance, the unexpected, more things happening than what he thought would happen, black swans, uncertainty, unknown unknowns, and low-probability, high-consequence events, the effects of all of which were compounded by risk. While indiscriminate evil cannot explain why Malcolm should ask the troops to cut down the boughs of Birnam Wood, chance multiplied by risk can. By chance, Macbeth meets a man not of woman born. By risk, he dies. Had he not put so much on the line by killing Macduff’s wife, babes, and lord, the encounter may have been less grievous.

Chance and the unexpected appear to the mind as a gap in nature, as a vacuum where there should have been knowledge. The intellect is poorly designed to comprehend the dark night of chance: though the math to comprehend chance was available from antiquity, it was not until the Italian Renaissance that probability theory laid down its footings. The intellect strives at all times to prove that everything happens for a reason. Thought finds a world where the random element runs amok false and impenetrable. Thought abhors empty space, rails against wild things.

When the world confronts timid natures with accident and uncertainty, they feel pity and fear. Pity for the tolling of the bell and fear that they too are exposed. These natures, who needed to reassure themselves from chance, sought to contain it, some by devising simplistic explanations (overconfidence, uxoriousness, ambition, etc.,) and others by devising complex metaphysics (the forces of darkness and evil). With these objectively questionable and subjectively comforting explanations, they allayed their fears, saying to one another: “Be more modest in your ambitions,” “Do good,” and other like refrains, thinking that with a change in behavior, next time they could stop Birnam Wood. Their explanations are from the point of view that the mischance of men’s ambitions are caused by man, and not by chance.

When the world, however, confronts more ambitious and confident natures with accident and uncertainty, far from pity and fear, they feel wonder and awe, wonder at how an individual, so full of fire and the seed of greatness, could be struck down by chance, and awe for the smallness of man in the boundlessness of randomness. They see that the killing risks are not the risks they see, but the ones that cannot be seen until after. They see that greatness is not without risk, and that there is a price to live dangerously. These fiery natures Macbeth marshals forwards, into the unknown, into risk, into the dark night of thought, as though saying to them: “Friend, dare to live dangerously, and you too shall die. Why the fuss? I also died, who was better by far than you.”

To these souls on fire, the highest honour is to join Macbeth and the pageant of tragic heroes who, having climbed past every ladder, found a way to climb on top of their heads, ever higher, higher than Ida’s peaks and Icarus’ flight. For them, to live is to dare. But it may be that there are other readings, and that there are as many truths to Macbeth as there are hearts, some circumspect, some like fire, some obsequious, some firing out their chests like cannons, some lily-livered, some cold as iron, hard as rock.

Littlewood’s Law

Some find the concatenation of low-probability, high-consequence events in Macbeth beyond belief. How could one individual become thane, then king, fall into tyranny, lose his lady to madness, see the wood come up the hill, and then meet a man not of woman born? That this too is part of an all-too-human heuristic that shuns chance and uncertainty can be demonstrated through Littlewood’s Law.

J. E. Littlewood, a twentieth century Cambridge mathematician, believed that exceedingly improbable events happen more often than we anticipate. To demonstrate his hypothesis, he devised a thought experiment. First, he called these unanticipated events miracles. Next, he defined miracles as events a million to one against. Through the observation that we experience many events each day, he demonstrated that we encounter the highly improbable monthly:

Littlewood’s Law of Miracles states that in the course of any normal person’s life, miracles happen at a rate of roughly one per month. The proof of the law is simple. During the time that we are awake and actively engaged in living our lives, roughly for eight hours each day, we see and hear things happening at a rate of about one per second. So the total number of events that happen to us is about thirty-thousand per day, or about a million per month. With few exceptions, these events are not miracles because they are insignificant. The chance of a miracle is about one per million events. Therefore we should expect one miracle to happen, on the average, every month.

In life, it is thought that we experience a handful of defining moments, moments full of miracle and wonder such as comings of age, marriage, and convalescence. The implication of Littlewood’s Law, however, is that these existential fulcra whereon life hangs in balance happen more often than we anticipate. Life, far from being a steady state with gradual change, is in a constant state of revolution. The moments of respite are as infrequent as the major upheavals are frequent. In this probabilistic existence, we find ourselves often standing, like Macbeth, outside the safety of circumscribed beliefs.

Macbeth, in dramatizing the crossroad between probability and life, not only illustrates that more things can happen than what we think will happen, but also that these more things happen more frequently than we allow. These strange concatenations of events in the play may be more emblematic of life than critics have allowed. Even in a world of pure good, and one in which the drives of ambition and confidence are constantly held in check, we should expect to see a Birnam Wood event, by chance alone, on the average, every month.

The Old Master

Part of the reason so few have based their readings of Macbeth around low-probability, high-consequence events is that such readings are inherently paradoxical. The low-probability event is only improbable to Macbeth. To the audience, it is a high-probability event. This paradox drives critics to look elsewhere for the play’s keys. Many have done exactly this, basing their reading around ambition, hubris, error, uxoriousness, or the insidious action of evil. It need not be so, as the paradox is easily resolved: it exists to generate suspense. Another reason, however, why so few have tried this reading is that it flies in the face of the old master, Aristotle.

Just as the intellect abjures the role of chance as a causal factor in life, it is perhaps fitting that the greatest of intellects would abjure the role of chance from the construction of the best of plots. Aristotle declares in the Poetics that tragedy dramatizes the sorts of thing that could happen. Tragedy deals with probable events:

It is also evident from what has been said that it is not the poet’s function to relate actual events, but the kindsof things that might occur and are possible in terms of probability or necessity. (1451a)

Not only should tragedy deal with the probable, he goes on to say that chance events, being signs of inferior plot construction, are to be avoided (1454a-b). The net effect of his condoning the probable and condemning the improbable was to preclude chance and the highly improbable from the discussion of tragedy. It is a shame.

Aristotle had reasons for banishing the improbable. He was trying to rehabilitate tragedy. His teacher, Plato, had found tragedy to be degenerate and unceremoniously banned it from his ideal city-state (Laws 817a-e, Republic 607b). To rehabilitate tragedy, Aristotle gave it a social function. To Aristotle, theatregoers seeing the consequences of characters’ actions onstage would better understand the consequences of their own actions offstage. For this stage to street transference to work, however, actions had to be repeatable. For actions to be repeatable, they had to be probable. If a flaw onstage would lead to a similar fall offstage, nine or ten times out of ten, then tragedy could fulfil its social function.

In rehabilitating tragedy, Aristotle turned tragedy into a distant early warning of poor character. For the next two thousand years we would talk about how irascibility led to the fall. The fall was precipitated by confidence, stubbornness, ambition, and other behavioral factors that the agent could change, and by changing, escape tragedy. By neutering the improbable, Aristotle rehabilitated tragedy.

Aristotle has ruled the roost for two thousand years. In new millenniums, however, we seek new truths. In this age of the unexpected, we seek and find, through Macbeth, a new truth for tragedy that speaks to the pervasiveness of the random element. From its dramatization of black swans, Macbeth gains its overwhelming impetus. By affirming how the unthinkable happens again and again, Macbeth touches all the themes of our day. What is more, tragedy is once more dangerous. When it is dangerous, it is exciting and fit entertainment for the highest natures.

The Great Race

In this reading of Macbeth, I have shown how the action pivots around the fulcrum of the low-probability, high-consequence event. By the advantage conferred by this force multiplying machine, with the lightest touch the dramatist can provoke characters to abandon belief systems and risk certain comfort on uncertain hopes. Risk unbound, in turn, leaves characters susceptible to the unintended consequences of their actions: the more risk they assume, the more susceptible they become to each tremor. All the meanwhile, the dramatist plays a metatheatrical game with the audience, creating suspense by dangling before the audience the prospect that he will bring about an event so rare and wild that any lesser dramatist would cringe at the attempt. From the page to the stage, tragedy is a theatre of risk.

This concludes my study of probability in Macbeth. I needed to write this, because, to me, this play was like a great race in which runners would compete, and, in the course of the running, they would run across banana peels. Some of them they would see, and jump over in great leaps. Some of them they would not see, or see too late, and slip. The runner, who led by an overwhelming margin in the final stretch, slips by accident and is unable to cross the line. This same runner, while jockeying for position earlier, had also pushed last year’s winner into the ditch.

Now, listening to the commentators, I was surprised because they would never declare these falls as accidents. Instead they would say that this runner slipped because he ran too ambitiously or that that runner slipped because he ran with too much gusto. As for the frontrunner who never crosses, this, according to them, was to show that cheaters never prosper. If you saw the play as I do, would you not yourself have needed to say this, that it was not error, hubris, confidence, or justice that causes the fall, but that the fall results from something much simpler, namely that, in a course full of banana peels, more things may happen than what we think will happen?

This reading is based on my new theory of tragedy, which is laid out in my book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. The book has launched the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy, The Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition, now in its third year. Thank you for reading.

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.

Greek Tragedy, Black Swans, and the Coronavirus: The Consolation of Theatre

April 3, 2020

Memorial University

Edwin Wong

melpomeneswork.com/coronavirus/

 

Greek Tragedy, Black Swans, and the Coronavirus: The Consolation of Theatre

A “Classics Coffee and Conversation Hour” Zoom Presentation

 

1

Testing, testing: can everyone hear me? Thank you, Professor Luke Roman, for the invitation. Thank you, everyone, for tuning in. I’m Edwin Wong and I’ve got a great half hour talk lined up for you called: “Greek Tragedy, Black Swans, and the Coronavirus: The Consolation of Theatre.” Grab your coffees, let’s dive in.

We unravel, and to whom should we turn? Many of us, even the older ones, have never experienced a pandemic of these proportions. For direction, let us turn to an unlikely art form that has collected over two and a half millennia of experience in risk management: the art of tragedy.

They’re many ways of looking at tragedy. If you look at tragedy as a theatre of pity and fear, it will not help. Aristotle speaks silence. If you look at tragedy as death and destruction, it will not help. Chaucer’s Monk has nothing to say. If you look at tragedy as a theatre of catastrophe, it will not help. Howard Barker is not your man. If you look at tragedy as a collision of ethical positions, it will not help. Hegel has turned away. But if you look at tragedy as a theatre of risk, tragedy will be your Muse during this Great Quarantine.

The coronavirus pandemic: it came out of nowhere, yes? It has a large impact, yes? First, I’m going to argue that tragedy is the art that explores these low-probability, high-consequence events. Next, I’ll show how in tragedy and in life we trigger these types of events. Then I’ll show you tragedy’s path forward.

2

Let’s start with Euripides’ Bacchae. Most of the time the ninety-eight pound weakling spreading a seditious cult isn’t a god. He’s a charlatan. But Euripides doesn’t dramatize what happens most of the time. He dramatizes the one time that the stranger is a god. Most of the time, Pentheus would have booted the stranger out of town. But this time, he’s torn apart limb by limb.

Does the Bacchae dramatize a low-probability, high-consequence event? In works of literature, closing lines are critical. Consider the Bacchae’s closing lines, spoken by the chorus:

What heaven sends has many shapes, and many things the gods accomplish against our expectation. What men look for is not brought to pass, but a god finds a way to achieve the unexpected. Such was the outcome of this story.

What does the action consist of? It consists of “many things the gods accomplish against our expectation.” “A god,” says the chorus, “finds a way to achieve the unexpected.” Point blank the text says that tragedy dramatizes the impact of the highly improbable. This isn’t a coincidence either: Euripides concludes three other plays—Medea, Helen, and Andromache—with the same refrain.

Next, let’s consider how Sophocles’ Oedipus the King drives home the impact of the highly improbable. How often does the detective on the trail of murder find out that he was the killer? Not often. It’s a low-probability, high-consequence event, and that’s precisely what Sophocles dramatizes.

Next, let’s consider how Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes brings to life the impact of the highly improbable. You’re in the middle of a civil war. You and six other captains will be posted to each of Thebes’ seven gates. Outside, six captains—with your insolent brother as the seventh—will be posted to attack each of Thebes’ gates. You’re trying to figure out if the gods are on your side.

Each captain bears a shield. You can see whether the gods are on your side by interpreting the shield devices. If your guy bears the device of Zeus and the other guy bears the device of Typhon, that’s the gods telling you they’re on your side: in mythology Zeus tamed Typhon.

Besides seeing whether the gods are on your side, you’re also trying to avoid the worst-case scenario: being posted to the same gate as your brother. There’re rituals to purify spilt blood, but no rituals to purify spilt kindred blood. What are the chances that, just as you’ve established that the gods are on your side, you find out they’re actually calling you do die? In other words, what are the chances that the matchups favour you from gates one to six but you find out your brother awaits you at the final gate?

Seven captain can arrange themselves into factorial seven (7 * 6 * 5 * 4 * 3 * 2 * 1), or 5040 arrangements at seven gates. Only 1 out of these 5040 permutations yields the sequence of attackers we see: Tydeus at gate one, Capaneus at gate two, all the way up to Polyneices at gate seven. The same goes for the defending captains. They too can arrange themselves 5040 different ways, but only 1 out of these 5040 arrangements sees Melanippus at gate one, Polyphontes at gate two, all the way up to Eteocles at the highest gate.

To find all the permutations possible with seven attacking and seven defending captains, we multiply 5040 by 5040: 25,401,600 different matchups are possible. Now we can answer the question: what were the chances that the matchups from gates one to six favoured you so that, just as you were certain of victory, you are cast down at gate seven? The odds of that happening were 25,401,599:1 against. Most of the time, it doesn’t happen. But Aeschylus doesn’t dramatize “most of the time.” He dramatizes how Oedipus’ curse is fulfilled against overwhelming odds.

I like to think of tragedy as a big risk simulator that dramatizes the impact of the highly improbable. Tragedy looked at in this way becomes of topical interest, a mirror into which we can see reflections of the Great Quarantine.

3

The arrival of a new god, the detective on his own trail, and two brothers called to the highest gate: there’s a name for these events. Like the day JFK died, or when Chernobyl melted, or when the Challenger rocket ship lit up the skies, or when the Berlin Wall fell, we call these events “black swans.”

The term “black swan” originates from the Roman satirist Juvenal, who likens the perfect wife to “A rare bird on this earth, in the very likeness of a black swan.” Since it was thought that the perfect wife doesn’t exist, the black swan became a byword for objects and ideas that lie outside the realm of belief.

When, in the seventeenth century, black swans were sighted in Australia, the long-standing belief that black swans did not exist went out the window. The term “black swan” could take on a novel meaning. Because the sighting of black swans was a low-probability event (Europeans had been looking at swans for millennia without sighting one) and the sighting of one had high consequences (millennia of data was falsified), the black swan could become a visual representation of unexpected low-probability, high-consequence events.

It was mathematician, philosopher, and options trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb who popularized the term “black swan.” Taleb argues that we are blind to the impact of low-probability, high-consequence events. Our cognitive and mathematical models underestimate both the frequency and impact of the highly improbable. The timing of his 2007 book, The Black Swan, was impeccable. The Great Recession, a swan event, broke out the following year. The term “black swan” to denote outlier events with profound implications would enter the popular consciousness.

After the Great Recession, there was a rush to understand the role of chance and uncertainty in life and the markets. Experts mumbled and fumbled and charlatans spoke out. It seemed to me, however, that there was a ready-made art form to explore how things that pop out of the blue can leave a lasting legacy. That art form was tragedy. Euripides tells us through the chorus that tragedy explores how things happen out of the blue. Aeschylus too dramatizes how life is impacted by events which are 25,401,599:1 against. If we wanted to understand the role of chance and uncertainty in life, all we needed to do was to give tragedy a chance. For over twenty-five hundred years, tragedy has been exploring swan events.

4

In tragedy and in life risk triggers black swan events. By taking risks, Oedipus triggers the black swan event: he is the regicide he is searching for. In another famous tragedy, Macbeth, by taking inordinate risks, triggers the swan event: Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. In life, speculators, by taking too much risk, triggered the Great Recession. Risk exacerbates low-probability events because it is a powerful see-saw: it enables you to move mountains.

If you’re in a comedy, you should take risks. The gods are on your side. “Coincidence must really be a divinity,” says Demeas in Menander’s The Girl from Samos, “she looks after many of the things we cannot see.” If you’re in a tragedy, however, the gods are not on your side. Risk skews to the downside. Let’s see how we trigger black swan events in tragedy and in life.

I think confidence triggers black swan events. Take Oedipus. The black swan event didn’t have to happen. He makes it happen with his incessant question asking. Tiresias, Jocasta, and the shepherd all plead for him to stop. But, like a bull in a china shop, he keeps going because he’s sure he can crack the case.

Just like in the tragedy, I think confidence played a role in the black swan event called the Great Recession. Speculators, confident that property prices would continue to climb, leveraged up. Old timers who had seen this movie before plead for them to stop. But, like bulls in a china shop, the speculators charged onwards. Then the bottom fell out. It always does. Not only did the speculators lose their own capital, they lost the capital of others. Many faced ruin.

I think idealism triggers black swan events. Take Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone. The unexpected event is that, in defending his homeland, he destroys his family. The unexpected happens because he’s a zealot. His zealotry rises to such a pitch that when his niece gives her brother—who was a traitor—burial rites, he sentences her to death. Her death, in turn, triggers a sequence of unexpected events which ruins his family.

Just like in the tragedy, I think idealism and zealotry played a role in the black swan event called 9/11. Bin Laden appropriated religion to launch a holy war which saw four planes flying where no planes were expected to fly: two into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon, and one—were it not for the efforts of heroes—into the White House. In one moment, the world changed.

I believe a concentration of capital and resources triggers low-probability, high-consequence events. Aeschylus says: “God’s sharp lightnings fly to stagger mountains.” Shakespeare, many years later, echoes the sentiment: “When beggars die, there are no comets seen; / The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.” When you start a venture, and a low-probability event happens, the consequences aren’t necessarily astounding. If you start up a venture and have access to the wealth of nations, when the low-probability event happens, the consequences may be much greater. “The heavens blaze forth the death of princes” because princes have the means to change the course of history. Consider Xerxes in Aeschylus’ Persians. If he had been a minor king, death would not have undone so many.

Just like in the tragedy, if you have capital and resources—say 340 million USD burning a hole in your pocket—when the low-probability event happens, the consequences may be extremely high. 340 million is the sticker price for one Deepwater Horizon, a powerful oil rig. It can drill deeper and further than ever before. But if it goes awry and explodes and the blowout preventer fails and the blind shear ram fails, then it will spill 600 thousand tonnes of crude into the Gulf of Mexico. If your capital and resources had been less, you still could have had a blowout, but the consequences would have been less dire.

I believe when we devise elaborate schemes around probabilities that only have the seeming of certainty, we trigger black swan events. Prophecy is a good example. Here’s an example from Herodotus. When Croesus, King of Lydia, asks the Delphic oracle whether he should attack Persia, the oracle says: “If Croesus attacked the Persians, he would destroy a great empire.” Croesus would only understand afterwards that the oracle meant the destruction of his own empire, a devastating event.

An echo of how the misinterpretation of prophecy can result in unintended consequences occurs in Sophocles’ tragedy Women of Trachis. In prophetic words, a dying centaur tells Deianeira that he will give her a love charm:

Thus shalt thou have a charm to bind the heart

Of Heracles, and never shall he look

On wife or maid to love her more than thee.

When she uses the charm, however, she finds out that it kill Heracles. The charm works, but in an unanticipated manner.

Just like in the tragedy, I think when we devise elaborate schemes around probabilities that have the seeming of certainty, we trigger black swan events. Financial algorithms are today’s equivalent to yesterday’s prophecies. While yesterday’s prophecies spoke with oracular authority, today’s algorithms speak with mathematical authority. In both cases, when misunderstandings arise, the results are devastating. Case in point was Long-Term Capital Management, a hedge fund founded by two Nobel Prize winners. Their formulas identified irrationally priced bonds. As the prices of these bonds returned to their expected value, they would profit.

The managers at Long-Term trusted their algorithms. They put their trust on display when they borrowed 140 billion dollars to amplify their returns. It turns out that, like the oracles of old, their algorithms were correct. But, what they also found out was that the market could remain irrational longer than they could remain solvent. When their trades went awry, their lenders issued a margin call. With only 5 billion of their own money, they were unable to repay the 140 billion outstanding. Their lenders, a consortium of international banks, couldn’t cover the losses and the global financial system fell to its knees. Alan Greenspan and the Federal Reserve, playing the deus ex machina, were forced to intervene.

I believe that extraordinary situations increase the likelihood of black swan events. In such situations, you have to act with abandon. You have to throw the Hail Mary. When you do so, you throw risk to the winds. Take Oedipus the King. There’s a plague. Oedipus must continue the investigation or else all Thebes perishes. He has no choice. But, by continuing, he triggers the risk event.

Today, we also experience the extraordinary: the coronavirus pandemic. To find a solution, we’re developing vaccines at a breakneck pace. Vaccines typically take a decade to develop. Today, they’re talking about administering a vaccine to healthy populations in a year. On March 16, three months after the outbreak, Moderna began testing a vaccine on human subjects in Seattle. What could go wrong? Our real life setting, like the dramatic setting in Sophocles’ play, encourages us to throw risk to the winds. When we do so, we invite the black swan.

5

In conclusion, I’ve asked you to reimagine tragedy as a theatre of risk. I do so because tragedy may be a source of wisdom: it is the art that dramatizes downside risk. Because tragedy simulates swan events, it raises our sensibility of how risk impacts life.

I began with Euripides, who emphasizes in the text how tragedy dramatizes swan events. I went on to Sophocles, and pointed out how Oedipus the King dramatizes a low-probability, high-consequence outcome: a man who damns himself. Then, I demonstrated with math that the outcome of Seven Against Thebes takes place against overwhelming odds. I chose these examples to encourage you to reimagine tragedy as a theatre where risk runs riot.

Then I told the tale of how heroes trigger devastating risk events. I talked of their confidence and idealism. I talked of tragedy’s other commonplaces: kings and queens with capital burning a hole in their pockets. I talked of the fools’ gold in oracles and algorithms. And I talked of how dire straits compel us to close our eyes, say “Hail Mary,” and throw the long desperation pass deep into the end zone.

What’s the takeaway? Well, there’s no magic bullet. Black swans are impossible to predict because they’re not known knowns or known unknowns, but rather, unknown unknowns. They’re the arrival of a new god, the invention of the Gutenberg press, or Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. Such events lie beyond prediction. But there is something we can do. We can, to borrow another of Taleb’s terms, become anti-fragile.

Look at these heroes of tragedy. Despite their strength, charisma, and cunning, they’re wonderfully fragile. When they make a plan, there’s no plan B. They wager all-in: “Go big or go home,” they say as they hunt their white whales. Fragility is absolute conviction that the oracle is true, that the algorithm is right, and that all swans are white.

What is anti-fragility? Anti-fragility is everything that the tragic hero is not. Anti-fragility is a plan B. It is redundancy. Anti-fragility is keeping some powder dry. It is putting eggs into different baskets. Anti-fragility is fluidity, taking the shape of water. Anti-fragility is skepticism. This time may be different. Anti-fragility is not conviction, but the greater strength that it takes to call into question one’s own convictions, the courage to ask: “What is the downside if I’m wrong?”

You will think: “But the coronavirus is different. The heroes of tragedy brought about the black swan. We have been struck down, but we did not wager all-in like the heroes of old.” Is that so? From my childhood to adult life—I’m forty-five now—there’s been two trends: urbanization and globalization. Urbanization packs more and more people into the downtown cores. Pandemics, as Thucydides recognizes, love crowded spaces. What is more, as we urbanize, we build cities nearer to the jungles and the caves where the bad bugs dwell. Then there’s globalization. Globalization connects all the world’s cities in a tight embrace: Wuhan is connected to Milan, is connected to New York, is connected to Tehran. When Wuhan sneezes, the world catches cold.

If we were to read the art form of tragedy onto today’s pandemic, we are the heroes who have wagered all-in on the benefits of urbanization and globalization. While we were toasting each other, Covid-19 stole up to us like a thief in the night. A few months ago, we stood at the sixth gate, standing in the same place Eteocles once did as he started planning the day of celebration. Funny how that is, how we’re in the gravest danger when we’re the most confident. This is tragedy’s legacy.

What’s the takeaway? Let us be anti-fragile. Let us have a plan B. Let us have redundancy in our social networks and bank balances. Let us keep some powder dry. Let us diversify and let us adapt. Let us urbanize and globalize, but let us also challenge urbanization and globalization. But, if we do not want to do be anti-fragile, then let us go all-in like the wonderfully fragile heroes of tragedy. There is glory in that as well. But, whichever way we go, if we take tragedy to be our Muse, we will go in with a greater awareness of how it isn’t the decades that will define us, but the few, and unexpected moments. We will not be defined by what we will, but by that stray moment that steals up to us like a thief in the night. None of us will be where we plan on being in five or ten years. But we will keep going.

If you’ve enjoyed this talk and are interested in more, ask your local library to carry my new book (and audiobook, narrated by Greg Patmore of Coronation Street):The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. In it, I argue that risk is the dramatic fulcrum of tragedy. The book has launched an international playwriting competition with over $15k of prizes each year. It’s hosted by Langham Court, one of Canada’s leading theatres. The competition website is at https://risktheatre.com/. A transcript of this talk is available on my blog melpomeneswork.com/coronavirus/. Thank you for Zooming in and stay strong.

Edwin Wong’s Articulation of Personal Research Activity (Risk Theatre)

Canadian Association of Theatre Research Conference (CATR) “Partition/Ensemble”

May 25th-28th 2020 Montreal, Canada

The Articulations of Division and Unity: Re-evaluating Practices of Artistic Research Seminar

Concordia University and Université du Québec à Montréal

Natalia Esling and Bruce Barton Co-Curators

 

Hi Everyone, my name is Edwin Wong. Like many of you, I arrived at theatre off the beaten path. I’m a classicist who studied ancient theatre with Laurel Bowman at the University of Victoria (’04 BA Greek and Roman Studies) and David Konstan at Brown University (’07 MA Classics). My favourite old-time tragedy is Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes—of all the plays in the tragic canon, it’s the only one where you can work out the odds of all the actual and contrafactual outcomes. That’s fascinating because I study the impact of highly improbable events. I was born in 1974, so that makes me 45. I live in Victoria, BC where I work as a project manager for PML Professional Mechanical. We build hospitals, schools, office buildings, submarine hangers, condos, you name it.

In commercial construction, “Mechanical” refers not to cars, but to an umbrella of trades: plumbing, sheet metal, fire sprinklers, insulation, firestop, refrigeration, and controls. Mechanical—alongside electrical, glazing (windows), concrete, wall board, gypsum wall board, and many others—is one of the divisions of construction that come together to build the buildings you see around you. Project managers are a liaison between designers (architects and engineers) and the trades installing the work. As a project manager, I look after contracts, changes, construction schedules, and mitigate risk. I’m a Red Seal plumber by trade. That means I’ve completed a four year apprenticeship.

I enjoy reading books outside my field of study, especially books on financial speculation, market bubbles, and stock market collapses. Favourites include Lowenstein’s The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management (how an overleveraged hedge fund founded by two Nobel winners brought the global economic system to a stop), Bernstein’s Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, and Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Perhaps it’s from my work and reading interests that the focus of my artistic research is to explore what happens in drama when risk becomes the fulcrum of the action.

The current focus of my artistic research began in winter 2006 when I came across trader/mathematician/philosopher Taleb’s first book, Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and the in the Markets. It was sitting in the economics section of the big Borders bookstore in Providence, Rhode Island. His book argued that low-probability, high-consequence events shape life more than we think. Wall Street traders triggered devastating low-probability, high-consequence events by taking on inordinate risks. I thought: “Isn’t this what happens in tragedy? Macbeth triggers Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill—an exceedingly low-probability event—by taking on too much risk.” I spent the next twelve years perfecting a theory of tragedy where risk drives the action and I called the theory “risk theatre.”

When Great Recession—a product of excessive risk taking—hit in 2008, I realized how the scale of human ambition in finance, politics, warfare, technology, and science makes risk a timely topic. Theatre could capitalize on this by simulating risk on the stage. My risk theatre theory of tragedy would provide a template for playwrights who wanted to engage with risk.

When I started writing and researching the book, I was working at Bayside Mechanical. I would try my ideas of risk on my colleagues in the office. We talked about construction risks, and this influenced the book. In construction, sequencing the trades is critical. Before the steel studs go in, mechanical installs or “roughs in” the drainage pipes and potable water distribution. Studs go in, and then electrical and mechanical finish putting in their pipes, ducts, and conduits. Then drywall goes up. Because construction schedules are compressed, when a delay in one part of the process occurs (for example, if cold temperatures delay pouring a suspended concrete slab), the delays cascade down the chain, affecting all the trades, and the day delay in the pour ends up setting back the construction schedule not one day, but two weeks. This type of risk is called “tight-coupling,” and from discussions with other project managers, became a sub-chapter in the book. To illustrate it, an example from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was used: the letter carrier to Verona just happens to be quarantined, delaying Friar Lawrence’s letter to Romeo. But, because Friar Lawrence’s plan is tight-coupled (the end result relies on many events happening in perfect sequence), the failure of one small part of the plan creates an unexpected and dramatic low-probability, high-consequence event: two suicides instead of one wedding.

The language of my book provides an example of how diverse perspectives change the flavour of research. In addition to talking to other project managers and engineers, I would run my ideas by the tradespeople. When they were hanging cast iron pipe, I would tell the tradespeople about literary theory. When they would review the blueprints, I would tell them about the art form of tragedy. When they were having coffee, I would chat with them about risk. If you read my book—and I hope that you will—you’ll find that, compared to other books on literary theory, the language is straightforward. In my book, you’ll find many construction analogies. For example, my theory of tragedy is likened to a set of blueprints construction workers use to build a house. Many of the ideas were run by the tradespeople at work. To get the ideas across, I would present them in a straightforward language using construction metaphors. Much of this vernacular makes it into the book. As a result, even though my book contains literary theory, it’s accessible to people from all walks of life.

The traditional paradigm of theatre research is that if you’re not part of an academic department or a theatre, you’re unable to contribute to the discussion. You’re out in the wilderness, and the wilderness will reclaim you. Sort of like historian Arnold Townbee’s “Appalachian effect” where, if an advanced society settles the Appalachia, in a few generations, despite whatever refinements it had, will revert back to nature due to its geographic isolation. There’s some truth to this. Without the support from the community, it’s hard to keep going. But I think, if you’re not part of the establishment, and you’re able to keep going, you’ll be able to bring new perspectives into an established art. New blood.

Friesen Press published my statement of artistic research, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected in 2019. It contains a model of drama based on uncertainty and chance. On the cover is an image of the dead man’s hand, a visual analogy of the impact of the highly improbable. The dead man’s hand is a poker hand, a pair of black aces on eights. The odds of this poker hand are remote but the consequences great. It was the hand folk hero Wild Bill Hickox held when he was unexpectedly shot dead in a saloon in Deadwood.

My book presents a theory of tragedy through an extended gambling metaphor. Heroes are gamblers who place delirious bets at the no-limit tables. They lay down, however, something other than money. In tragedy, cash isn’t legal tender. Human values are legal tender. Loman, in Death of a Salesman, lays down his dignity for the American Dream. Faust, in Doctor Faustus, lays down his soul for world dominion. Macbeth lays down compassion, or the milk of human kindness, for the crown. More, in A Man for All Seasons, lays down his life for his faith. The ramification, and I believe it is an important one, of looking at dramatic acts as gambling acts is this: tragedy serves as a valuing mechanism for human values. A gallon of milk is worth $4.99, but how much is the milk of human kindness worth? It’s hard to value life from within life itself. But, in Macbeth we see that the milk of human kindness is worth a chance at one crown to rule Scotland. Tragedy is the art that values human assets. It does so through the mechanism of the hero’s wager.

Of course, we don’t come to the theatre to be educated, but to be entertained. Tragedy entertains, according to risk theatre, by dramatizing gambling acts gone awry. Heroes, by making delirious bets, trigger low-probability, high-consequence outcomes not unlike how gamblers, by going all-in, blow themselves up. Famous gamblers who have blown themselves up by wagering all-in include Hermann from Pushkin’s short story The Queen of Spades and the Cincinnati Kid from Jessup’s novel The Cincinnati Kid. Heroes, according to risk theatre are similar. They concentrate their fortunes on one all-in bet. Their wagers, like Hermann’s and the Cincinnati Kid’s, are good. They play to win and should win. But then, the unexpected happens and all is lost. Sometimes the unexpected comes in the form of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. Other times it’s when one discovers—as Loman does—that one’s life insurance policy makes one worth more dead than alive. And then there’re the times when the foolproof bet is derailed—as the Cincinnati Kid discovers—when the adversary “makes the wrong move at the right time.” Audiences are entertained by watching heroes blow up in the same way as spectators in casinos find entertainment in watching the action at the no-limit tables.

Many people talk of how heroes blow up in tragedy, and of how audiences find the fall thrilling. What risk theatre gives you, is the mechanism by which heroes blow up and the mechanism of why audiences find the fall entertaining. “Why do we find tragedy endearing when it recounts sad tales full of strife and sorrow?” is a perennial question. Risk theatre provides answers.

To look at how risk triggers low-probability, high-consequence outcomes, risk theatre brings together studies in risk management and the interpretation and creation of theatre. Studies in risk management take many forms. There are the breakdowns of the events leading up to Chernobyl, Deepwater Horizon, or the space shuttle Challenger. There are studies of irrational exuberance, studies of the financial manias and crashes from the Dutch Tulip Bubble in 1637 to the South Sea Bubble of 1720  (where Newton famously lamented: “I can calculate the movement of the stars but not the madness of men”) and from the Great Depression in 1929 to the Great Recession of 2008. Then there are the studies of the great adventurers, of how they perished ascending Everest or sailing off the edge of the world. And then there are the military disasters: the Fall of Singapore or the failure of the Maginot Line in the Second World War or the Battle of Lake Trasimene or the Battle of Cannae in antiquity.

In these studies, risk analysts, historians, engineers, scientists, and economists have identified recurring motifs which precede the fall: black swans, overconfidence, failure to adapt, dogmatism, communications breakdowns, excessive leverage, lack of redundancy, tight coupling, feedback, miscalculated second-guesses, heuristic errors, and many others. Traditionally, playwrights and interpreters have focused on how the protagonist’s hubris precedes the fall. My research looks at how all the different types of risk precede the fall. My goal is to allow tragedy to speak to today’s analysts, historians, engineers, scientists, economists, and other risk takers, by interpreting tragedy in their language. Birnam Wood, for example, becomes a black swan event. In Corneille’s Cinna, for example, the feedback between the quartet of protagonists leads to unexpected outcomes. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet becomes a study in tight coupling (when each part of a plan is dependent on all the other parts). And so on.

Tragedy also entertains, and risk theatre explains what makes tragedy thrilling. Spectators come to the theatre to feel the emotions of anticipation and apprehension. To continue the gambling analogy, just as spectators go to the casino to watch the high stakes action at the no-limit tables, so too theatregoers go to the casino, not to watch the nickel and dime bets, but to watch heroes make delirious wagers. Theatregoers feel anticipation for what the hero will wager. What will Macbeth wager for the crown—perhaps compassion, or the milk of human kindness? What will Loman wager for the American Dream—perhaps his dignity? What will Faustus wager for world dominion—perhaps his soul? In addition to anticipation, theatregoers feel apprehension for how, despite having the best-laid plans, heroes lose all.

After twelve years of researching my book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected, I shopped around for a publisher. Because I was no longer part of academia, the academic presses were uninterested. Because I wasn’t part of the theatre world, the presses which focus on drama were uninterested. The manuscript sat fallow until a friend suggested that I try self-publishing.

As luck would have it, one of Canada’s premier self-publishing companies, Friesen Press, is located in Victoria. In 2018, I signed up with Friesen. They would take care of typesetting, printing, and distributing the book. Marketing and publicity would be by me. Then I thought: “How can I get credibility for my self-published title to entice theatregoers, critics, academics, and playwrights to buy it?” My goal is to offer people a new and exciting way to interpret and understand drama and literature. But who would buy a self-published book?

First, I started a blog. Since I was working on tragedy, and Melpomene is tragedy’s Muse, I called the blog “Doing Melpomene’s Work” (melpomeneswork.com). I would blog about the process of writing the book, my thoughts on theatre, book reviews, and really anything that came to mind. But the blog wouldn’t be enough.

In addition to the blog, I decided to start a playwright competition: I would challenge playwrights all over the world to create risk theatre plays, and there would be cash rewards for the winners. The playwright competition would provide design concept proof. If audiences loved risk theatre plays, then tragedy could be rebranded as a theatre of risk. Tragedy is a tired art. Some find it pretentious. Others are mystified by the concepts of “flaw” and “hamartia” and “catharsis.” Tragedy needed a reboot.

Creating the playwright competition was more challenging than I thought. I had no theatre contacts and no idea where to start. I initially pitched the idea to Playwrights Guild of Canada. They said: “We like the idea, but who are you?” They would publicize the competition on the condition that I partner up with a theatre. At that point, I began to approach the local theatres.

I thought it’d be easy. I always heard the arts were looking for money and funding. I would approach the local theatres saying: “I’ve got all this money to start a competition, let’s partner up.” Not all the theatres responded to emails and voice messages. Some who responded didn’t think the competition was a good fit. Some responded with hostile comments. This wasn’t the welcome into the theatre world that I was expecting.

Sometimes, after some bad luck, you get some good luck to balance things out, and that’s exactly what happened. When I called Langham Court Theatre, General Manager Michelle Buck just happened to be in the box office, and I had a chance to speak with her. We set up a meeting. In a few months, the board of directors approved the project. She brought teacher, director, and playwright Keith Digby on board, who in turn brought on board actor, director, playwright, and educator Michael Armstrong. The Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwright Competition was born. It awards over $11,000 in cash prizes to playwrights each year. In addition, we bring in the winning playwright to workshop the play. The experience culminates with a staged reading at Langham Court Theatre.

Our international jurors for the first year were Yvette Nolan (Canada), Armen Pandola (USA), and Sally Stott (UK). Here are the winners they selected, based on the criteria of risk theatre as outlined in my book.

The first place winner was Brooklyn playwright Gabriel Jason Dean’s In Bloom. It tells the story of Aaron, an ambitious, well-intentioned, but ultimately reckless documentary filmmaker in Afghanistan. While there, he not only risks his own life in pursuit of exposing a greater truth, but his actions also lead to the death of an Afghan boy named Hafiz, a tragedy Aaron later lies about in his award-winning memoir. This sets off an unexpected chain reaction of events.

The four runners-up were Michael Bucklin with Signature Photo, a story of a photojournalist who is willing to risk all to get the photograph that will launch her career. She makes the dangerous trek to Rwanda, where she finally gets the shot—a picture so brutal and controversial that it became an instant sensation. Yet the success of the picture has unintended consequences for the photojournalist, as well as those around her, and the repercussions turn devastating when the authenticity of the photographs is called into question.

Next was Scott McCrea with Mysterious Ecstasy of the Lonely Business Traveler, a play in which a wealthy corporate executive’s memories have been erased and replaced by a copy of those of another man, a doctor named Marko. Believing he’s Marko, he wagers more than he suspects he can to start a new life, free from the errors of his past. But his gamble has unexpected tragic consequences.

Then there was Phillip Christian Smith’s The Chechens. In The Chechens, rumours are going around that homosexuals are being held in camps. Can one family go all-in to protect their little brother who may or may not be gay? Or will they turn him in or honour kill him? Whichever way the family chooses, dangerous and irrevocable consequences will be set loose.

The final runner-up was J.D. Volk’s Chrysalis. In Chrysalis, an interracial married couple struggles to come to terms with the role they played in the tragic death of their young biracial son at the hands of a police officer. It examines Keri’s wager to transcend the cultural norms of being a woman of colour in America. She does this by guarding against the unlikely but ever-present threat of violence that may befall Jack, her biracial child, and trying to convince her white husband of the need to take appropriate precautions. Nevertheless, the die of fate has been cast. The unexpected triumphs over expectations.

The implications of taking risk theatre from the page to the stage are far-reaching. By encouraging and challenging playwrights each year to make risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action, we can test the hypotheses of risk theatre. Can each dramatic act be considered a gambling act? Is theatre the place where we can price out the value of human assets such as dignity, honour, and compassion—the milk of human kindness—through the mechanism of the hero’s wager? How do audiences react to heroes triggering low-probability, high-consequence outcomes with their delirious wagers?

I was exceedingly pleased by both the quantity (182 playwrights from 11 countries participated) and quality of the work. From creative writers to academics and from emerging playwrights to seasoned veterans, they sent in plays. In our first year, we had been expecting fifty entries, tops seventy. That our expectations had been exceeded was proof of concept: playwrights were interested in writing plays where risk and the unexpected drive the action.

In October 2019, Gabriel Jason Dean flew from Brooklyn to Victoria to workshop his play In Bloom. Michael Armstrong ran the workshop with Gabriel, and the workshop culminated in a staged reading at Langham Court Theatre. It was magic to focus on risk, chance, and the unexpected during the workshop. And it worked on stage. The best comment I had was from a friend who came. She said, “I’m glad I could make it, but I have to leave at the intermission to put the kids to bed.” At the end of the show, when I saw she stayed, she smiled and said: “I had to see how it turned out.” The success of the staged reading with the audience provided further proof of concept that risk is the key to rebooting tragedy in the 21st century.

The feedback from the playwriting community has been encouraging. They enjoy this new way to look at tragedy. Playwright and two-time Academy Award nominee Donald Connolly wrote: “The idea of ‘tragedy’ was wrapped in the mystique of motivations and nobility and flaws that put it out of reach for me as a playwright. This book strips away the mystique and makes the form available to me.” The competition is now in its second year. The goal is that in ten years, risk theatre will have reached a critical mass with playwrights (who create the plays), directors and dramaturgs (who interpret plays), and audiences (who attend plays). Once critical mass is reached, tragedy can be rebranded from its old identity (pity, fear, error, story of kings and queens) into a theatre of risk which speaks to contemporary audiences.

In addition to the blog and the playwright competition, I also conference and speak to students. Although risk theatre is a new idea, its ideas can be presented through reading classic plays. Macbeth is a great example. In Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth’s high-risk wager—the milk of human kindness for the crown—is thwarted by an unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event—Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill.

This year, I’ve presented to a third year drama class at the University of Victoria. I gave them a risk theatre reading of Sophocles’ classic play Oedipus rex. A risk theatre reading starts with finding the hero’s wager: Oedipus bets that he can solve the riddle of the plague and stakes his reputation on being able to do so (he did after all, solve the sphinx’ riddle). His bet is good, but his expectations are dashed when a low-probability, high-consequence event happens. That event is that he unexpectedly runs into the Corinthian messenger—who had also saved him when he was a babe—and the shepherd—who was supposed to have exposed him when he was a babe and is the sole surviving witness of Laius’ murder. Risk theatre finds that dramatists generate excitement by derailing heroes’ expectations by low-probability, high-consequence risk events. A link to the presentation: “When Genius Failed: A Risk Theatre Reading of Sophocles’ Oedipus rex” can be found here: https://melpomeneswork.com/oedipus/

I’ve also presented this year at the Classical Association of the Middle West and South AGM at Sanford University in Birmingham, Alabama. In this presentation, I talk about my favourite tragedy: Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes. It’s my favourite because it’s the only play in the dramatic canon—whether ancient or modern—where you can quantify the exact odds of what did take place, and what did not take place. It’s possible to do this because of the play’s unique structure. It’s set during a civil war. Seven attacking captains are randomly posted to attack each of Thebes’ seven gates. Seven defending captains are also randomly posted to defend each of Thebes’ seven gates. The worst-case scenario takes place if the two brothers are both posted to the final gate. By using the laws of probability, I demonstrate how Aeschylus structures the play so that the fated outcome takes place despite the odds of it happening being more than two and a half million to one against. Seven Against Thebes is risk theatre’s paradigm play because the sheer improbability of the outcome can be stated in such precise and overwhelming figures as to be able to prove the risk theatre hypothesis that the function of tragedy is to dramatize low-probability, high-consequence risk events. A link to the presentation: “Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, Probability, and a New Theory of Tragedy” can be found here: https://melpomeneswork.com/aeschylus-seven-against-thebes-probability-and-a-new-theory-of-tragedy/

In conclusion, the aim of my artistic research is to consider all the ways in which tragedy is a theatre of risk. Through my book, the playwright competition, the blog, and conferencing, I invite academics, theatre professionals, creative writers, critics, and audiences to consider how risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. My efforts are directed to a singular goal: to usher in a new tragic age in storytelling, drama, and literature. Our age is an age fascinated with risk, chance, uncertainty, and the impact of the highly improbable. Risk theatre rebrands and reimagines tragedy for these modern times. Even though I approach theatre as a stranger and outsider, I hope, that people will want to explore the possibilities when risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. Risk theatre is the name of 21st century.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.